Alumni Spotlight: Kimberly Miller

Dr. Kimberly Miller
1993 Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award Recipient
Auburn University

What do you remember most about receiving the Sullivan award? Were you surprised? What do you think you did to receive the award?

I was humbled, honored and surprised. I did not know that my faculty and my dean put me up for this award. I think I was chosen for my character (humility, caring, always doing the right thing over what is easy, focusing on others first, and leaving a person, place or thing better than I found it). As part of my focus on serving others within the university, I helped turn around the psychology honors society and made it more of a proactive resource for students. We also did fundraising for a child care facility on campus and held many valuable in-person events that were not done before. We created a formal initiation ceremony and were more connected to our students. In terms of my community commitment, I volunteered at Project Head Start for over two years working with a child with emotional and behavioral challenges. I was a rape counselor and a listener and trainer at the crisis center, and I worked as a peer educator at the university health clinic for students.

Who nominated you for the Sullivan Award? What was your relationship like with this person, and do you still have a relationship with them now?

Well it started with the chair of the psychology department (Dr. Bill Hopkins) and also my dean, who also awarded me with the College of Liberal Arts Graduate of the Year award—I can’t remember his name. I had a great relationship with Dr. Hopkins, and he was actually my direct supervisor when I was president of the psychology honor society. He was also my mentor, and we kept in touch for years after I graduated. I have actually been looking to reconnect with him—I think he is in Georgia now.

Tell us about your career and what you do now. Why did you go into this particular field?

When I was 17 years old, I knew I wanted to be a psychologist. After having this realization, I chose to go to Auburn and get a BA in psychology and then continue my education to earn psychology degrees for my MA at Ball State University (clinical psychology) and my Ph.D. at Colorado State University (counseling psychology). I was called to this career by God. I knew He put me on the planet to leave a person, place or thing better than I found it, and, for me, psychology was the avenue that I could use to serve others and make the world a better place.

After my time at Auburn, I worked as a Substance Abuse Counselor and Recreational Therapist for Blind Veterans at the VA Hospital in Birmingham, and then I went on to graduate school, where I again worked as an addictions counselor, ran the psychology department’s advising center for students. For my thesis project I developed a new strengths-based measure of psychology wellbeing, which I validated on over 1,200 community members. My clinical sample included individuals who were struggling with substance abuse in homeless shelters, halfway houses, inpatient and outpatient rehab facilities, etc. My non-clinical sample included individuals who were experiencing some level of stress but were functional in life. I obtained this sample from organizations such as law enforcement agencies, hospitals, banks and non-profits.

My goal for this project was twofold: 1) to help the facilities provide a new way to assess and more effectively treat their clients, and 2) to help organizations realize where their employees were in terms of wellness and make changes to the organization (i.e., culture, practices, policies, etc.) to improve the wellbeing of employees. I knew that if organizations could take better care of their employees, the employees would take better care of their customers/community.

The results of my thesis were amazing, and every site that I provided a comprehensive report to was grateful and used the data I provided to improve their organization. They also agreed to participate a second time (for my dissertation) so they could receive additional feedback and continue to improve. I am honored to say that for the work I was able to do in collaboration with the communities I was privileged to serve, I was awarded Thesis of The Year for 2005 for the entire university, which had never been won by a graduate student in the psychology department.

For my dissertation project I continued this research, but I added a few additional measures as suggested by the non-clinical sites. For this project, I added a specific measure of job satisfaction and qualitative questions on culture, leadership, what they like most and least about their agency, etc. For this project, I collected data in both Indiana and Colorado and had close to 2,000 community participants. Again, everyone was grateful for the feedback and free consultation services I offered.

Additionally, since I am Cherokee and am passionate about serving the Native American community, I conducted a cross-cultural validation of my measure with a sample of 15 Native Elders. They all agreed that my measure is valid for use with Native people and within Native communities. These same elders were grateful that I approached this project in a strengths-based fashion, since Native communities are used to being pathologized.

During my time at Colorado State, I volunteered to work on Native American substance abuse research and published several articles and presented at conferences. I also worked in the counseling center providing therapy for students and community members, who could not afford treatment. Additionally, during this time I joined the Society of Indian Psychologists and became a board member so I could better serve this group. Furthermore, I was an active member of the Native group on campus and would volunteer my time in the organization to serve students, help run retreats and provide supports to students who were struggling.

During my time in graduate school I began working with law enforcement (through my dissertation and thesis projects). However, after I graduated, law enforcement continued to reach out to me for assistance (i.e., strategic planning, succession planning, classes on employee motivation, leadership, communication, conflict, etc.) and I started working with this community more. During this same time, (after I graduated), I was a research faculty member at Colorado State University continuing my research in Native Communities examining substance use rates and prevention efforts. Additionally, I was involved with a group at the University that was doing training for teachers and parents in Native and underserved schools. I was a lead on this project and provided numerous trainings around the state of Colorado. However, the more law enforcement called me and I became too busy to do keep up with three very different jobs, I decided to leave Colorado State and focus the majority of my work with law enforcement.

Since 2014 I have grown my training, consulting and coaching company and to date I have worked with over 150 law enforcement agencies around the country. Being a police psychologist has truly changed my life and enabled me to serve a truly underserved population. When I was in school my focus was on youth and adults with substance abuse disorders (and I still have passion for serving these groups). However, the law enforcement community truly sought me out and I got led to do the majority of my work with them. They have many struggles and challenges and I have been honored that they have trusted me enough to be open to my feedback, instruction and guidance. I truly know I make a difference every day with this population.

Are you involved with any community service or community outreach now? What service opportunities have you been involved with in the past? How have these impacted you?

My current outreach involves staying as active as I can with the Native group on campus (though this is limited now b/c of COVID), mentoring Native graduate students, conducting research and statistical analysis on the effectiveness of the CSU Native groups annual STEM Camp, being an active member in the Society of Indian Psychologists, and facilitating talking circles for our members each month where we discuss our struggles and success. In general, it is a place our Native psychologists and graduate students can receive support regularly. Additionally, I serve as the President of the National Sheriffs’ Association’s Psychological Services Group, where we provide free training and consultation services to its members. We are also available for emergency crisis intervention.

I also provide free webinars (about 12 or so a year) for a wide range of customers (e.g., law enforcement, school/universities, Nursing homes, other therapists, and non-profits) and write regular articles in magazines where I provide tips, suggestions and advice on how people can transform their personal and professional lives. Finally, I usually have at least one or two individuals who I gift with free coaching or therapy sessions because of their life or economic challenges.

As far as what I have done in the past, my volunteering began in high school, where I worked several times a month for a few years at an organization that served a very poor, violence ridden community in Birmingham. When I was at Auburn, I was a rape counselor, peer health educator, listener and trainer at the crisis center, and a volunteer at Head Start where I worked for two years with a child that had emotional and behavioral problems. When I was president of the Psychology Honor Society (PSI CHI), I also facilitated fundraisers for a childcare facility on campus. At Ball State I volunteered for campus projects (advising center for students and was on the University Strategic Planning committee). In the state of Indiana, I worked with clients in treatment center, homeless shelters and halfway houses, providing therapy, and education. When I was a student at Colorado State, I volunteered my time to work in Native American Substance Abuse research, volunteered in our community clinic, where I provided free assessment and therapy services for the underserved members of Fort Collins. I also volunteered my time with the Native group on campus in all the ways I mentioned earlier. During this time, I was also asked to be an advisory board member for one of the clinics I worked with in Indiana and served on their board for over a decade.

After graduating, I volunteered to serve as a supervisor and facilitator for a few at-risk summer camps for youth who were struggling. In this role I helped to screen the youth who applied to determine who would be the best fit for the camp, developed a strength-based curriculum to be used at the camps, conducted all the counselor trainings, supervised the counselors, created an evaluation tool to help assess the effectiveness of the camps and also provided education and experiential activities for the youth. Additionally, for the Native group on campus (who ran a yearly STEM camp for Native students), I have created a survey and evaluation tool that has been used for years to help us get feedback from the campers and also track their long-term success of the program.

I don’t know if there is enough time to adequately express the profound effect these experiences have had on me. All of these shaped my life and my mindset and further spurred me to leave a person, place or thing better than I found it. They have also provided me new perspectives and understanding of those who are different from me, helped me to connect with people I would not have normally had the chance to build relationships with, and enabled me to see how we are all connected through the human experience. It has also shown me that it truly is the small things that matter; it’s how we treat people, a kind word we say, going the extra mile, or being willing to persevere during difficult times that makes all the difference. I was put on the planet to serve, and all of these experiences have enabled me to live my purpose. I know I have received more from these opportunities than I have ever given, and I am grateful for everyone.

What are some social issues that matter most to you today?

Police reform, climate change, racism, the political division/hate we have in our country, and the lack of character we show in how we treat each other. I can expound on these more if you want, but, based on your question, I just made a list.

If asked to give one piece of advice to younger people, what would you tell them? What have you learned as an adult that you wished you’d known earlier in life?

Find what you are called to do and do that thing exceptionally well. This means sometimes going against what other people want or think you should do and intentionally practicing and using your gifts each day. Sometimes, when we are living our passion and we feel we are effective in that role, we forget we must practice and always strive to be better. You will never stop having opportunities to learn. Take them all—the good and the bad—and stay focused on your purpose. When you do this, life will be a joy, and you will be blessed beyond measure. Additionally, never forget that character is the foundation of who you are; it drives the decisions you make and will make or break how you are perceived. Remember, this is the most important perishable skill!!

What I wished I knew earlier was how much I was in my own way. Yes, I offered a lot of positive things to the world, but if I truly was open to feedback and had more perspective earlier on in life, I would have been much more effective. I would not have burned as much negative energy and would have worked more on myself rather than trying to change others. Many times, we can’t see our faults, or we just blame other people for their reactions, but we can’t truly understand how we come across or what experiences we create for others until we are willing to ask, learn from the feedback and moderate ourselves so we can be more effective as humans.

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