Award for Distinguished Achievement

By Corinne Militello ’98

When Dr. June Jackson Christmas ’45–4 visits Vassar this spring to accept AAVC’s Award for Distinguished Achievement, she will come prepared to engage students in a dialogue about balancing individual and social responsibility, the two forces that have shaped and guided her own numerous achievements to date.

A community psychiatrist and health-policy planner, Christmas received her medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine. In her psychiatry practice, Christmas has always worked with adults but also has a particular interest in adolescent development. Her current volunteer work as a member of the board of trustees and chair of the program committee for the Jackie Robinson Foundation reflects her passion for mentoring young people, and improving educational opportunities for minority youth. Through her publications and policy work, Christmas has made an impact on the national level and in her own community. “You begin with community but you really have to work on all levels,” Christmas said. She founded and was first director of the Harlem Rehabilitation Center, a community-based psychiatric rehabilitation program. The center existed for 30 years, was innovative in its approach to mental rehabilitation, and succeeded in training members of the community to work with mentally ill clients.

From 1972 to 1980 Christmas was commissioner of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Alcoholism Services for the City of New York. She has served on countless other national, state, and city health advisory councils including President Carter’s transition team for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, which she led in developing policy options and initiatives. Christmas’ leadership within and recognition by professional organizations is also tremendous. In 1999, she was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Medical Fellowships.

Christmas currently sits on the board of the Urban Issues Group, a policy institute that she helped found in 1993 to address “issues that were critical to people of African-American and African-Caribbean descent.” The institute has studied the health of African-American children in New York City, the school voucher system, and the foster care system. In many ways, Christmas said, she finds community work most successful, because she believes that socioeconomic conditions must be improved before policy changes can have a lasting effect on a national level.

Christmas remained involved with the Vassar community after graduation. She was a member of the Board of Trustees from 1978 to 1989, and was the President’s Distinguished Visitor in 1988. Since 1995, the Africana Studies Program has presented the June Jackson Christmas Prize for Academic Excellence in Africana Studies. Though Christmas’ interest in the sciences was strong from the beginning — she was a zoology major — her liberal arts education at Vassar led to a lifelong interest in language, art, and music. “You so need people to have broad experience in all aspects of human knowledge and learning,” she said.

In her semi-retirement, Christmas hopes to travel, attend the opera and jazz performances, and perhaps recount her remarkable experiences in a memoir. And she’ll continue to contribute her expertise to the Jackie Robinson Foundation and the Urban Issues Group. Christmas explained, “It’s satisfying for me, and it’s doing something for others that leads to social change.”

To read more about Christmas, visit the Summer 2000 "Beyond Vassar" section of the VQ.