Tracy L. Cross, the Jody and Layton Smith Professor of Psychology and Gifted Education, was recently determined to be the world’s most productive researcher in gifted education according to a study published in High Ability Studies. The article aimed to identify key thinkers in the field, as well as the primary institutions that generate research on giftedness and the extent of international, institutional, and individual collaboration.
The study examined the output of four major academic journals in gifted education over the past 60 years. In a list of the top 30 most published authors in these four journals, Cross came first, with 97 published manuscripts. William & Mary appeared twice on the list, with Professor Emerita Joyce VanTassel-Baska also placing in the top 30.
Cross has been conducting research into the psychology and education of students with gifts and talents since the early 1980s. He has held an endowed chair at William & Mary and served as director of the W&M Center for Gifted Education since 2009.
Cross tells the story of his earliest introduction to the topic of giftedness when, as a young boy, he discovered his mother crying at the kitchen table, with the results of her children’s IQ tests open in front of her. “I remember her saying, ‘I just wanted my kids to be normal,’” says Cross. “She was always the smartest person in the room, but as a woman in that era, raised in the mountains of Tennessee, her giftedness brought a good many challenges with it.”
Cross describes himself as a psychologist who studies gifted people, and credits many mentors throughout his academic career who have helped him become established as one of the foremost researchers in the discipline.
During his 16 years at Ball State University, Cross had the opportunity to serve for nine years as executive director of the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities, a state-funded, two-year residential high school for 325 students from across the state. In addition to directing the work of the school, Cross served as the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Gifted Studies and was able to conduct research among the students and faculty, developing some of the earliest studies on topics such as the psychology of gifted students, including personality and suicidal ideation, and attitudes toward gifted education.
A particularly impactful experience during his tenure at Ball State was the death of a student attending the Indiana Academy by suicide on prom night. By the end of that academic year, the school had lost three students who had attended the school to suicide.
That experience has fueled a lifelong commitment to researching the topic of suicide among gifted people. To that end, he founded and serves as executive director of the nation’s only Institute for Research on the Suicide of Gifted Students, housed at William & Mary.
“At the center, we have been exploring the lived experiences of students with gifts and talents across five different countries, asking what are the perils and rewards, the barriers and supports to their success in school and in life?” says Cross. “We are finding many similarities — the sense of otherness that gifted students feel, the impact of the anti-intellectual nature of many public schools, and how students cope with the stigma of giftedness.”
His wife Jennifer Riedl Cross, director of research at the Center for Gifted Education, is co-leading a project called Campus Connect, a training program for W&M faculty, staff, and students designed to develop skills and knowledge in how to respond when students are in distress. The ultimate goal is to increase the university’s support for students, raise awareness, and reduce the rate of suicide on college campuses.
Tracy Cross is quick to credit the support of his wife as integral to the success of his career. “My secret to being a good researcher was marrying well,” he says. The two met in high school and have raised four children. “She’s made sacrifices for me and our family, but the work of both family and academics has always been collaborative.”
The two arrived at William & Mary in 2009, when Tracy Cross took on the leadership of the Center for Gifted Education. At the peak of the Great Recession, Cross looked for ways to ensure the center’s longtime survival, making important changes in organizational structure. He elevated several staff positions to director-level positions with significant responsibility for their respective areas within the center. Staffed by faculty, these director positions became important career destinations for talented individuals, strengthening the work of the center.
Having run programs for gifted students for more than 30 years, Cross was eager to expand the center’s offerings for local gifted students, particularly those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Together with Mihyeon Kim, clinical associate professor and director of precollegiate learner programs for the center, Cross developed Camp Launch, a summer residential program for talented middle-school students from low-income backgrounds. Now in its ninth year, the camp brings 150 middle-school students to the W&M campus for two weeks of immersive STEM experiences and a personal development curriculum designed to give them the psychological tools to succeed in high school.
“We started with middle school students, which was a strategic choice from a developmental perspective,” says Cross. “At that age, students are encountering increasingly complicated issues of acceptance and peer groups. Gifted students need to meet other students like them and begin forming their own identities as scholars.”
Most recently, Cross was named the 2020 Palmarium Award winner from the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education. The award is given annually to eminent leaders in the field of gifted education who exemplify a vision of “a future in which giftedness is understood, embraced and systemically nurtured,” according to the college.
Cross will receive the award and present at the college’s 10th Annual Gifted Education Symposium and Conference in late January.
“It is an honor to receive these awards and accolades,” says Cross. “However, the most gratifying experiences of my career have been those moments when I have been able to make a difference in individuals’ lives. That is what keeps me working, asking questions and researching.”