Emblem: Healing the Hurt

Touched by his experiences working with troubled young people, Dr. Jay Mancini has spent his career studying the family and close personal relationships.

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When Jay Mancini walked into the Philadelphia’s Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital adolescent treatment center for his first day of work, he didn’t know he was beginning his career focused on helping families thrive. He’d just graduated from The King’s College with a degree in psychology and had taken a job as an orderly helping young people in crisis. Jay spent a year working in a clinical environment, trying to help young people who were struggling with deep-seated addictions, eating disorders, and psychiatric problems.

As he watched the young people bounce in an out of the treatment center, relapsing over and over, he was struck by the role that the family played in every patient’s life, either as part of the problem or as part of the solution. Jay realized how the family makes up our core relationships and impacts every person so much. He was moved by how many families wanted to help their children but didn’t know how, motivating him to embark on a career in the emerging field of family science.

In Jay’s life up to that point, family had always played an important role. He was born in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, into the kind of Italian-American family romanticized in movies. Jay’s grandparents had immigrated from Veroli in southern Italy to the U.S. shortly before World War I, hoping to give their children a better life. They bought a house, planted the customary Italian fig tree in their backyard, and got to work raising their six children.

By the time Jay was born, Sunday family dinner at his grandparents’ house was the highlight of the week. To a young Jay, Mom Mancini’s kitchen seemed to contain all of the food in the world. There’d be peppers hanging on the wall, homemade pasta drying on the counter, and a table overflowing with homemade meats. Jay’s grandmother invited him into the cooking, teaching her grandson to use a crochet hook to pull snails out of their shells and boil them in red gravy.

Jay’s parents continued this tight-knit culture in their own family and taught Jay to always look for ways to serve others and make them feel appreciated, whether you know them or not. Jay remembers one time when his father took him to a Phillies baseball game at the Connie Mack Stadium. As they crossed the street to enter the stadium, they passed a police officer trying to corral traffic. Noticing his stress, Jay’s father walked into a corner store, bought a cup of coffee, and handed it to them as they passed.

Since Jay’s parents weren’t able to attend college, they instilled a belief in the importance of education in him. Jay grew up going to small Christian schools, so when it came time to choose a college, he was looking for a similar experience. An older classmate had gone to King’s, so Jay visited Briarcliff Manor and decided to attend. Once at King’s, Jay majored in psychology, enjoying his classes with Dr. Samuel Barkat, the head of the psychology department. Dr. Barkat was the first scholar Jay had ever met and he was impressed by his professor’s deep knowledge and scholarly approach to learning.

Even more influential on Jay, though, was a series of lectures hosted by King’s on the campus. The students heard from O.H. Mowrer, a psychologist who studied primates; Jonathan Kozol, a social reformer; and Victor Frankl, the world-famous psychologist who survived the Nazi concentration camps and wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl’s lecture deeply impacted Jay, as he spoke on the themes of overcoming adversity and finding meaning in life, even in the midst of tremendous difficulties. Jay was moved by Frankl’s ability to withstand the worst possible experiences in life and find a way to keep moving forward.

After graduation, Jay spent a year in Philadelphia working at the adolescent treatment center. Wanting to find a way to help families, Jay started to look for graduate schools where he could get his master’s in family science. This led to Kansas State University and his first encounter with the field of family science, the scientific study of families and close personal relationships. At Kansas State, Jay learned how research on families could be used to prevent and intervene in relational and communal problems, opening up a new world of scholarly work to Jay.

When he completed his master’s, Jay realized that he wanted to become a university faculty member in family science. So he applied to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and was accepted into their family science doctoral program. Jay blossomed under the mentorship of the UNC Greensboro faculty, as they trained him to be a family science scholar and helped him to hone his research skills.

After finishing his doctorate, Jay accepted a faculty position in the family science department at Virginia Tech, where he spent the next 32 years, serving as the department chair for eight of those years. While Jay taught some classes, his passion was for research, so he focused on using quantitative data to develop new insights on how to create healthy families and communities. Jay was enamored with the notion of inquiry, of looking at the world around him from a place of curiosity. “I would look at other people’s work,” Jay said, “And wonder what new research would uncover.” By looking at established opinions through a fresh lens, Jay was able to find fresh areas for research, allowing him to challenge faulty assumptions and correct long-standing biases.

During these years at Virginia Tech, Jay worked on a variety of research projects, from studying the intergenerational relationships between aging parents and their adult children to the sustainability of community-based programs for at-risk families. He also researched topics like the impact of leisure on the family, sibling  relationships in adulthood, and managing the risks of youth. While Jay’s work touched on many different topics, it was always centered around the themes that Victor Frankl introduced to Jay at King’s: vulnerability and resilience during times of adversity.

Jay has also done extensive research for the U.S. government on military members and their families, studying how families can thrive even during the stresses of military life. He’s worked with both the U.S. Army and Air Force, helping to create and assess family support centers. Jay would travel all over the world and gather firsthand experiences from members of the military.

Once, when Jay was visiting a military base in Germany, an officer shared his excitement with Jay about a support program they were implementing on the base. When he took Jay to his office to show him the program’s materials, the man looked down at the title page and realized he was talking to the author! The man asked Jay to meet with his staff directly, allowing Jay to connect with the people who were implementing his research in real life.

In 2009, Jay transitioned from Virginia Tech to the University of Georgia, where he served as the Haltiwanger Distinguished Professor and head of the department for the human development and family sciences. Today, Jay serves as an adjunct professor at UGA and continues to conduct research and publish articles, including a textbook on family stress management, now in its third edition. At this point in his career, Jay has published almost 125 journal articles and has been cited over 7,500 times, a sign of the value that Jay’s academic colleagues have found in his work.

One of these colleagues is Dr. Gary Bowen, the former dean and Kenan Distinguished Professor of the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Gary and Jay met as classmates at UNC Greensboro and have worked together through the years on major research projects surrounding military families, co- authoring a number of journal articles. Gary has always been impressed by Jay’s creative thinking, innovative research, and disciplined approach to his work. “Jay thinks deeply about problems and issues and how research can help deal with particular issues, whether it’s dealing with individuals, families, or communities.”

But more than this, Gary said that Jay’s always thinking about how to help families. “Jay’s always asking the questions, ‘How can we better support families? How can the family and community strengthen each other in a way that provides a better foundation for families and children?’ He’s done scholarship that is cutting edge and that has really impacted the lives of people. His work is theoretical, but it’s good science that’s committed to making a difference for individual families and communities.”

As Jay reflects on the opportunities he’s had to help build stronger families and communities, he’s always been motivated by Jesus’ teaching in Luke 12:48, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Jay recognizes how blessed he was to grow up with loving parents and surrounded by a supportive extended family, and he sees his work with families as a way to give back to others and answer the question that his parents were always asking, “What can I do to help other people?” Through Jay’s career in family science, he has equipped families and communities all over the world with the resilience and skills they need to thrive.


This story is from Emblem VII, our annual magazine. Read the full magazine here

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