“Because of the rats” is not a common answer to almost any question, let alone “Why did you choose a graduate degree program?”
But for CMU alumna Barbara Bessey, it was very much about the rats. In fact, she chose her undergraduate university primarily because it offered a rat program.
“You should have seen the look on my mother’s face,” she remembers.
Barbara studied physiological psychology, which — most memorably — involved a lot of experiments with rats to study their behavior.
Both of Barbara’s parents taught physics — her father at Carnegie Tech and her mother at Margaret Morrison Carnegie College — but it wasn’t her parents that influenced Barbara’s choice of CMU for her graduate education. Again, it was all about the rats.
She applied to a rat and monkey summer program between her junior and senior year. After that six-week intensive program, Barbara declared CMU “the one for me.”
Mutual Respect Leading to Love
She fondly remembers her labs and the scientific principles she learned in them, but what she most appreciated about her CMU education was the people she got to know, including her future husband, Kevin Gilmartin. She was one of only three female students, but she always felt included. And her professors and senior classmates would help her if she needed anything.
“If I wanted to do something, they would help me find a way to do it,” she recalls.
Kevin and Barbara became friends over a mutual love of music, and she found ease in their conversations and time together. “It was natural that we became a couple,” Barbara says. “We both looked at each other and found something good in what we saw.”
They studied different subjects — physiological psychology for her and cognitive psychology for him — but shared a great appreciation for what the other did.
The psychology department community helped her find a research opportunity with the Pittsburgh Zoo. She got the chance to work alongside a chimpanzee, a memorable and educational one-on-one experience.
That support spurred Barbara years later to establish an endowed psychology scholarship, in honor of Kevin, who died in 2011.
Barbara ultimately received two degrees in psychology from the Graduate School of Industrial Administration, now the Tepper School of Business: her master’s degree in 1971 and then her doctorate in 1975. (The Department of Psychology now resides in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.)
Barbara and Kevin married in 1975, right before moving to California, where Kevin started working at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), a nonprofit, nonpartisan behavioral and social science research, evaluation and technical assistance organization. Barbara joined him at the nonprofit three years later. In 2005, AIR hosted a joint “57 Retirement Party,” since 57 represented the sum of years Kevin and Barbara worked there together.
The couple chose the Bay Area as their place to settle and forge a life together, but they always felt it was important to give back to CMU — the place where they had formed such special memories and made wonderful, lifelong friends. After reconnecting at the 100th anniversary of the Department of Psychology in 2016, Barbara now attends quarterly Zoom meetings with a group of psychology alumni, and she plans to return to campus this fall.
Meet Natalia Santiago, one of the recipients of the Kevin J. Gilmartin and Barbara L. Bessey Scholarship.
Establishing a Legacy
Barbara and Kevin had always intended to set aside funds for CMU in their estate, but those plans were nebulous. It was only after Kevin’s passing that the idea to establish a scholarship took root. The Kevin J. Gilmartin and Barbara L. Bessey Undergraduate Scholarship Fund was funded in 2018 to provide need-based scholarship support to undergraduate students enrolled in the Department of Psychology.
“This fund will offer permanent support for research-involved undergraduate students,” she says. “It is an incredibly special way to honor Kevin’s legacy.”
Barbara hopes the scholarship will fund a “wide variety of undergraduate students” who might not have the means otherwise to attend college. She herself benefited from not having to worry about finances when she was a student and wants to provide that same security to today’s students.
Barbara feels particularly good about knowing that the scholarship is helping students during the turbulent days of COVID-19.
“In today’s world — given the pandemic and the closure of so many things and not knowing what to do next — people could use a little help,” she explains. “I feel good about having something there to help people.”