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Carolyn M. Tucker, Distinguished Alumni Professor, Department of Psychology

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Carolyn TuckerCarolyn Tucker

Psychology Professor Carolyn M. Tucker was raised in a small Virginian country town, in a family low in income but rich in love and support. Part of showing that love was preparing large home cooked meals that may have nourished the soul but fed the body too much saturated fat and cholesterol. “For African-Americans, food is a way of expressing ourselves and our love and affection,” said Tucker, who once weighed more than 200 pounds thanks to a steady diet of comfort foods. “It is part of honoring our past.”

To protect families like hers from obesity, hypertension, diabetes and other illnesses, Tucker has launched the Family Health Self-Empowerment Project for Modifying and Preventing Obesity. Funded by a $1.1 million grant from The PepsiCo Foundation, the program is designed to promote healthier lifestyles among children, adolescents and their caregivers in low-income families.

More than 600 families will participate in a health promotion training program over the next two years in communities across the U.S. Fun interactive workshops will be tested to determine their effectiveness as interventions to give participating families the education and training they need to take control of their health behaviors and their weight.

“We are going to use a more humanistic approach—this is one of the things that separates our program from others,” Tucker said. “We’ll focus on getting participants self-motivated and teaching them how they can be in control.  They will learn how to read nutrition labels, how they can use less salt and cook their favorite foods in more healthy ways, and how to overcome what they see as barriers to engaging in a healthy lifestyle.”

The project is not the first in which Tucker has used her research to help minorities. She has completed the Culturally Sensitive Teacher Training Research Project, which measured the impact of training teachers to use a culturally sensitive student-empowerment approach for the academic performance and behavior problems of children in their classrooms. Tucker has also conducted the federally funded Culturally Sensitive Health Care Research Project, which defined, assessed and evaluated whether providing culturally sensitive health care to patients affected their treatment adherence and health outcomes.

Tucker was one of the first black students to earn a Ph.D. in psychology from the State University of New York-Stony Brook and is the only African-American faculty member in her department. In her own research group, she fosters and promotes a culturally diverse environment. Of the 30 undergraduate researchers and eleven graduate students working on her two large research teams, 16 different countries are represented. However, students of all backgrounds have found Tucker to be a life-changing mentor. In 2003, she was awarded UF’s Doctoral Dissertation Advisor and Mentoring Award.

“A passion of mine is conducting research aimed at health promotion and reducing health disparities, and preparing the next generation of researchers—both minority and majority students—who are committed to minority health and reducing health disparities,” she said. “If I have any kind of legacy, I hope it will be this research and mentoring. Right now there is such a strong need for both.”

A Distinguished Alumni Professor, Tucker holds joint appointments in the Department of Psychology and the Department Community Health and Family Medicine, and holds an affiliate appointment in the Department of Pediatrics. In August 2006, she was awarded the Counseling Health Psychology Award at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. She also won UF’s first President’s Humanitarian Award in 2002 and received the Scholarship of Engagement Award for Outstanding Community Research from the UF College of Education in 2006.

Raised in a rural community among so many of her relatives it was referred to as “Tuckertown,” her parents had to work long hours just to make ends meet. “I would say we were poor, but my mother wouldn’t say that, she would say we had as much as anyone else—but no one had much.”

Her father, who had to drop out of school after 7th grade, worked in construction and did factory work before opening his own service station, where Tucker was expected to help out part-time. Her mother—who was able to complete one year of college before her own father died and left her unable to afford tuition—worked as a hairdresser from their home. As their only child, Tucker was their hope for the future and her education and development was a family affair.

“My dad often said I was his ticket to a better life, and he knew the only way I was going to make life better was through education,” she said. Tucker was required to study every night for at least two hours, whether she had any homework or not, and was told that school was her job. Her mother wore holes in her own clothing so Tucker could wear lace around her socks and feel confident in school.

“All of the messages to me were how smart I was—whether I actually was or not,” Tucker said. “They taught me about achieving against all odds. My grandfather used to say ‘Anything worth doing ain’t easy, and anything worth having is worth working for.’ I see myself as a very regular person, and I am very thankful for my humble background. It makes me really culturally sensitive, and gives me passion for the work I do.”

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