A man and woman standing on either side of a large yellow ampersand statue.
Albert Farrell, Ph.D., (left) and Catherine Ingrassia, Ph.D., interim dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, pose for a photo after Farrell won the College of Humanities and Sciences Distinguished Mentoring Award this spring. Farrell, founding director of the Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development at VCU and longtime psychology professor, is retiring after 43 years at VCU. (Courtesy Alexis Finc, College of Humanities and Sciences)

Albert Farrell, mentor, researcher and founder of VCU’s Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development, retires after 43 years

Psychology professor has spent decades supporting Richmond and the study of youth violence prevention.

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Virginia Commonwealth University professor Albert Farrell, Ph.D., has devoted his career to helping Richmond address youth violence and shaping new generations of child and adolescent psychologists.

Now, Farrell, Commonwealth Professor in the Department of Psychology and the founder and director of VCU’s Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development, is retiring after 43 years at the university.

For Farrell, who earned the College of Humanities and Sciences Distinguished Mentoring Award and was named a Distinguished Career Professor this spring, the individual impact is what has made his time at VCU so worthwhile.

“My students hear me say this constantly, but for me, the really important thing is to find something that you really enjoy, something that you’re good at and something that is valued,” he said. “And mentoring really hits all those marks for me.”

A first-generation college student, Farrell started college studying physics before seeing, through the studies of his older sister, the appeal of the emerging field of clinical psychology.

A picture of four people standing next to each other.
Albert Farrell, Ph.D., (second from right) Commonwealth Professor in the Department of Psychology, poses at VCU’s 1998 graduation with (from left) Steve Bruce, Ph.D., and Kami White, Ph.D., both now faculty members at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, and Terri Sullivan, Ph.D., a professor and director of graduate studies in the VCU Department of Psychology and incoming director of the Clark-Hill Institute. (Courtesy of Albert Farrell)

“I was fortunate in having her guide me about what I would need to do in order to get into a doctoral program,” he said. “Not having had anyone else in my family or that I really knew who had pursued graduate school, I was really lucky to have somebody who could show me the ropes.”

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and a master’s and Ph.D. from Purdue University, and he has been paying that guidance forward ever since.

“Being able to work with such bright young researchers who are eager to learn and to get engaged in the field is a real joy,” Farrell said. “I’ve been fortunate in being able to work with a lot of people who have gone on to have really successful careers, and feeling in some ways a part of that, for me, is really exciting. A lot of my interest is in methodology, and so to a large extent, my focus is really trying to mentor graduate students on doing really solid kinds of research to advance the field.”

After completing his clinical internship at Brown University, Farrell joined VCU’s faculty in 1980 and began teaching research methods, statistics and other clinical psychology courses.

His work in curbing youth violence initially stemmed from his interest in using evidence-based research to address community challenges. In 1992, Farrell responded to a request from Richmond Public Schools to evaluate and improve its violence prevention program. The next year, he and a team of researchers and community partners became one of a handful of teams in the U.S. that earned funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to continue their work. In 2001, Farrell founded the Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development, now the longest continuously funded CDC National Center of Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention.

Five adults standing on a stage. The woman on the far right is holding two small children.
Albert Farrell, alongside his wife, three daughters and grandchildren at VCU Convocation, received the University Award of Excellence in 2013. (Courtesy of Albert Farrell)

He said being in an urban environment in Richmond was one of the “real advantages of doing this work at VCU.”

“Part of what made that easier is the relationship with the community. Of the four sites that were involved in the multisite [CDC] project, we actually had the strongest participation rate from individuals within the community,” Farrell said. “People were very receptive to work with VCU. And one of the nice things is – building on a long history of doing the work – we were not researchers who were coming in to do our study and leave.”

The institute offered further opportunities to mentor budding psychologists and researchers.

Terri Sullivan, Ph.D., who will continue Farrell’s work as the incoming director of the Clark-Hill Institute, first met Farrell when she was a graduate student in his statistics and research methods course in the Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology program at VCU, and he later became her dissertation chair. Farrell has had a tremendous impact on the VCU and Richmond communities, Sullivan said.

“I’ve learned so much about youth violence prevention from working with him. And he is really an amazing person in the way that he opens up opportunities for the students and postdocs and faculty members that he works with,” Sullivan said. “Learning from him as a faculty member, seeing the way that he mentored other graduate students and junior faculty, I learned a lot from that that I took with me when I’ve had my own lab, my own grants and research projects.”

As a graduate assistant at the Clark-Hill Institute, Krista Mehari, a 2015 graduate of the Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology program, conducted a qualitative study under Farrell’s guidance exploring why youth might not use the conflict resolution and social-emotional skills they learn in school-based prevention programs and analyzing that data to see how those programs could improve.

“I know that Richmond has seen decreases in violence over time, and I’m not saying that's all attributable to him, but he has been deeply committed to the community for his career,” Mehari said. “VCU has its community engagement rating from Carnegie, and I think his work is evidence of VCU’s efforts to do work that actually invests in the community and partners with the community.”

To honor Farrell’s significance to her and others, Mehari curated a collection of photos and memories from other former students to give to him upon his retirement.

“It’s not possible to quantify the impact that he’s had on us. Like one person said, she can’t imagine anybody who had more of an impact on her life besides her parents. He has shaped the way that we think, the way that we approach problems and respond to problems,” said Mehari, now an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University. “Even when I went on postdoc, he was still my first call when I had a tricky issue that I didn't know how to deal with or when I wanted to think through something. I’m very grateful to have him as a role model.”

A picture of seven adults and one toddler sitting at a dinner table.
Albert Farrell, Ph.D., (second from right) Commonwealth Professor in the Department of Psychology, smiles alongside three of his doctoral students in 2015. Now graduates of VCU, (from left) Erin Thompson, Ph.D., Krista Mehari, Ph.D., An-Thuy Li, and two of Farrell’s former postdoctoral fellows, Anna Yaros, Ph.D., and Liz Goncy, Ph.D., with her husband and daughter. (Courtesy of Albert Farrell)

Farrell’s impact on Mehari continues today, she said, and those calls are likely to become more frequent. With Farrell as a research collaborator, Mehari leads two nationally funded studies at Vanderbilt – one on violence prevention through promoting equity in education and law enforcement, and one on gun-related injury prevention.

Indeed, Farrell said his work isn’t done.

“My intention is to remain active professionally. I really enjoy what I’m doing and want to have a bit more time to pursue other things. But this will let me pick and choose projects,” he said. “I want to continue to be involved in mentoring, and I’m still involved in several research projects that I want to see through to the end.”