May 6, 2022

Faculty Spotlight: Thalia MacMillan, School of Human Services

Interviewed by Carl Burkart, Director of Professional Learning Evaluation 

This month, we spoke with Thalia MacMillan about her work as a mentor, teacher, researcher, volunteer, and Star Wars fan. Thalia is an associate professor and mentor of community and human services, the department chair for the Health and Human Services department, as well as the point of contact for the BS in addiction studies program. She received both her MSW and Ph.D. in social work from Fordham University. In addition, Thalia serves on the editorial boards for six academic and professional journals. She is also an EMT-B with the volunteer ambulance squad in her community and serves as the captain in her squad.  

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you become a professor? 

Thalia MacMillan: So, I kind of came to this through a very odd path. I went from my bachelors, which was in human services and psychology straight into my master's in social work because I realized when I was looking for jobs that you had to have the masters in order to gain access to the field. I worked professionally in the field for about 20 years. While I was working, I was a teaching assistant in the evenings and on the weekends at my alma mater. I realized that I really loved working with students. Because of that I decided to go back and get my Ph.D. I was juggling full time school, full time work, part time work, and projects on the side. Here at Empire, this really combines my love of working with students, teaching, getting to do research, and different kinds of service work. 

What is your approach to being a mentor? 

Thalia MacMillan: I tend to use the strength-based approach, which comes from my training in social work.  A large part of what I do is identify the strengths of each student, see what they're bringing to the table, and then figure out ways that we can use those to help them on their educational journey. For some people, it's figuring out what kind of prior learning we can incorporate to reduce the amount of time to degree. With other people, it's figuring out what skills they have that we can build off. Some have a ton of experience, but they don't know how to use or express it, so it is figuring out what kind of things we can use to help you to get what you want, which is your degree. 

What kinds of courses and independent studies do you typically teach? 

Thalia MacMillan: I teach a broad-spectrum including courses in the area of disabilities and addictions. My background training is in policy, research, and management, so more of a macro style approach to human services. What I really love is working with students to show them how to combine skills in specific areas, such as evidence-based substance abuse counseling or advocacy for individuals with disabilities. 

In your field, a lot of students come to the college already having even worked in the field. What are some of the specific ways that they apply their experience to their degree? 

Thalia MacMillan: Many of our human service students, I would say 80 to 90%, come here with experience already. This could be through volunteer experience or through paid experience. They may work individually with people, or they have what it takes to work with people, but they don't necessarily know how that translates to skills like case management or advocacy. Part of what we do is to help them to take what they already have, which is such a tremendous thing, and translate it into what it means for the field. Then how can we take that and make it better? What I'm always hoping is that this resembles a recipe, that our students can take something and then make it more of their own, take it, and change it up for whatever they need. 

Could you tell us a little bit about some of the research and other projects that you have done? 

Thalia MacMillan: I started out working in the field of disabilities, particularly within the field of vision impairment, and learning how individuals cope with that. I transitioned this into the broader spectrum of coping, looking at things like mental health and how it is related to substance abuse. When I came here to SUNY Empire, I was able to continue that work, but I also started looking at things like “coping” for students in college. I've really been able to learn a great deal by hearing how people define success or failure when they're taking classes because it helps me to think how we can make this a better experience for them here while they're in school. 

Recently with some colleagues, I have been examining alcohol and substance abuse during COVID. We found that many were using alcohol and substance abuse to actually cope with what they were going through. We looked at what kind of factors impacted how well a person coped with that. 

Another project that I'm working on started right here at SUNY Empire and came from working with our students. Several of us in human services are working on structured guides for prior learning assessment, and we're doing research on how well they are working. What else can we include in them? What's the experience of using them? That's the biggest thing I'm working on right now.  

The final thing I'm working on is with some colleagues from outside of the college. We're looking at how we can mentor new faculty who are coming into the field. We noticed that some people don't necessarily have an idea of what it means to be a faculty member. I think it's that path of mentoring for me: how can we be better mentor others? 

Could you talk a little bit about the addiction studies program in particular? How does it work and why did we develop it? 

Thalia MacMillan: We actually developed addiction studies because so many students come to us with a ton of experience in the field, or they know they wanted to get into this field. They would say to us, “What do I need to take?” And because so many of the skills that they would need are a combination of generalized skills and specialized knowledge, they would all end up using the general concentration title of “human services,” and we thought: “This isn't working.” So David Fullard and I came up with this program and we were able to gather a lot of feedback from different organizations. We reached out to these organizations and said, “What do you need a student to have coming out of here?” And they provided us some really great feedback. They loved that a student had foundational skills, but also specialized knowledge. We were able to make it so that if a student has their CASAC or their CASAC-T or say they took some really great classes at one of our community colleges in SUNY, it could actually be incorporated into this program. The program is really student-centered to what will maximize what they are bringing in, either through transfer credit or prior learning, and how we can aid them in the future.  

Can you talk a little bit more about some of the work that you do in the volunteer ambulance squad? 

Thalia MacMillan: I actually came from a volunteer fire and EMS family. My dad is now celebrating 55 years as a volunteer firefighter and EMT. My mom was a volunteer EMT. I kind of had my own midlife crisis around 12 years ago and I decided that I definitely wanted to do it and have been doing it ever since. It's a pretty extensive training you have to go through, both initially and on a continual basis. I've gone on over 900 calls now since I started. We're a volunteer-based service and we never charge for our services. I am now the captain of the squad. I really love doing it and being able to take care of individuals in my community, giving back in my own way. I think it's part of my social work frame of mind. You help and advocate for others, by doing what you can do. 

May the 4th has become sort of a social media holiday. How would you rank the Star Wars movies? 

Thalia MacMillan: I'm a classic girl. I would always start with Star Wars 4, 5, and 6 then 7, 8, 9 and then probably 2 and 3, and then 1. The original 4, 5, 6 are always classic and the bedrock of the story for me. I have this philosophy that we don’t talk about the prequel, especially episode one: I mean, what was the point of that movie beyond introducing Jar Jar Binks? I love the different offshoots that we are seeing now, things like the Mandalorian, Boba Fett or Rogue One, those are also phenomenal as well. For me, I think 4, 5, and 6 really set out a good path for knowing what these movies were about and why you should care about this universe. The interesting thing is when you really look at the entirety of the movies. It's fascinating to see what elements George Lucas used to build this world. 

You have a lot of irons in the fire: you're teaching, you're mentoring, you're actively publishing, you’re a department chair, and active in college governance. What advice do you have for students who are also juggling multiple roles? 

Thalia MacMillan: The first thing I would say to anybody is it's OK to have multiple things in the fire, but it's also OK to take time for yourself. I think that we all tend to forget to do that, and I'm extremely, extremely guilty of not doing this. I never take time for myself.  

When you're working on different projects, I find it's really helpful to just have a certain set amount of time you're going to work on something. For example, when I'm in the office, I tend to save stuff for the train. And I will say to myself, “By the time you get to White Plains, you have to have this particular thing done and then you can goof off the rest of the train ride, which is another hour and a half.” So, give yourself a set amount of time and say, I would like to try to get this done within that time frame because then it helps you to feel like you accomplished something, even if it's something small like trying to find five sources for your paper or do just one reply on a discussion board. Even if it's a small part of what it is you're trying to accomplish, you still accomplished it. And it's OK to just say, “I have 10 minutes. Let me work on this or that,” because if you can do that, you can work your way consistently through what you need to do. If you can find some small moments here or there, it can make the work more meaningful to you because you feel like you're still working on something for you. That's how I try to do it.  

The other big piece of advice I would give is try to do work at times when you know you work best. So, for example, I'm a night owl, so I do my best work between 10 at night and 2 in the morning. Other people like to get up at 5 a.m., and they'll be really productive even if its just a half an hour. So if you can find a time where you could work on something and just really focus, take advantage of it. When you have that concentrated time, it allows you to be focused on specific tasks. This can keep you motivated and keep you going.  

Is there anything exciting coming up for human services? 

Thalia MacMillan: In the summer, we are hosting a series of educational planning workshops that are specific to human services. The first is degree planning, the second is writing your rationale essay, and the third is prior learning assessment. I’ll be hosting the prior learning assessment workshops.   

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