Before They Were Educators: Dr. Leonardo Bobadilla, Psychology Dept

Were you aware that Western Carolina University currently employs a professor that spent a year in prison?

If so, then you must have been a student of Dr. Leonardo Bobadilla, assistant professor of psychology. Bobadilla spent his final year of graduate school at Butner Federal Correction Complex in Butner, working as a clinical psychology intern.

Born and raised in Colombia, South America, Bobadilla and his family moved to New York City when he was 17-years-old. After experiencing a very culturally diverse and academically-lacking high school during his time in New York, Bobadilla’s stepfather transferred to Dallas, Texas, for work. There, Bobadilla would finish up high school in a much more academically-rigorous school.

“I was a poor student early on,” said Bobadilla of his early educational experiences.

For a year, Bobadilla worked doing odd jobs, like being a housekeeper in a mental hospital, before enrolling at a Christian college in Oklahoma where he hoped to achieve his lifelong dream of becoming a marine biologist.

“Growing up in Colombia, I used to pick up broadcasts of Jacques Cousteau’s show called ‘The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,’and I always wanted to work with him,” said Bobadilla.

Bobadilla also revealed another interesting aspect of his early college life.

“Everyone came to me with their sex questions,” said Bobadilla. “I had gotten a human sexuality textbook from my girlfriend at the time, and it being a Christian school, many of the kids weren’t experienced.”

However, Bobadilla soon found that his choices of both major and school were not working out.

“I hated chemistry, and it bored me to tears,” said Bobadilla. “Plus, the school told me that if I continued to ask about a condom availability program then I would be asked to leave.”

With that, Bobadilla departed and finished up his associate’s degree at a community college in Dallas. Afterwards, he enrolled at the University of Texas at Dallas to finish up his undergraduate studies. There, Bobadilla earned his bachelor’s in Psychology, deciding on that major after being impressed by an “Intro to Psychology” class that he took early on.

With his degree in-hand, Bobadilla worked in the district attorney’s domestic violence division as a victim’s advocate for six months. The work focused Bobadilla on aggression research, prompting him to ask questions about aggression and eventually collaborating on manuscripts exploring proactive and reactive aggression.

Although Bobadilla had many wide-ranging interests, he chose clinical psychology for his concentration when he entered graduate school at Florida State University.

While reading books and writing papers was fun, Bobadilla found the most enjoyment during senior year when he was a clinical psychology intern at Butner Federal Correction Complex and “spent [his] year in prison.”

“That was probably the happiest year of my life,” said Bobadilla, recalling on the year he spent facilitating prisoner interactions and helping substance abusers to nick their deadly habits. “It was so fascinating and a lot of fun to see all of the psychological disorders that you study right there in front of you,” he added.

He also connected the personal history of the prisoners to their time in prison during his first of two rotations in Butner.

“They don’t end up there by accident,” said Bobadilla. “For most prisoners, there were circumstances that led them to prison that were out of their control like having a bad childhood and bad parents. A lot of things that make you “you” are out of your control, but we aren’t slaves to our genes.”

Bobadilla and the other psychologists would also use peer pressure to help the prisoners. By making the prisoners accountable for one another, there was pressure to “fit in” and not let the group down, such as possessing drugs or a tattoo gun, which were outlawed. If the prisoners violated the rules, they would get work duty or homework assigned to them. Substance education was also available.

When Bobadilla’s second rotation arrived he was able to gain experience in forensic psychology in which he completed assessments on prisoners found incompetent to stand trial.

“The court wanted to see if the person could be restored,” said Bobadilla. “Contrary to popular belief, it is very hard to malinger.”

Malingering is a medical term that refers to fabricating or exaggerating the symptoms of a mental disorder, an act that Bobadilla admits, despite his extensive experience with mental disorders, he would be unable to do successfully.

During his time at Butner, only three prisoners were found to be malingering. Many were schizophrenic, and one prisoner even refused to be medicated because he thought people were trying to poison him.

After graduating with his doctorate in clinical psychology from FSU in 2008, Bobadilla was hired by Western Carolina University. He had applied after hearing about the opening from a WCU professor who also had spent time at Butner.

During graduate school, Bobadilla taught classes that included over 200 students. When he arrived in Cullowhee in the fall of 2008, he was relieved to teach classes ranging from 30-35 students.

“I really liked Western because there was an emphasis on teaching and getting able to get to know my students,” said Bobadilla, who thrives off helping students who ask for assistance.

“I also really enjoy having so many first-generation college students,” said Bobadilla. “They are very motivated and, with a little push from their professors, flourish in the college world.”

Bobadilla has taught classes like “Intro to Psychology” and “Abnormal Psychology,” which deals with adults psychological disorders, along with including grad students in his research.

Collaboration with the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, also allows Bobadilla a chance to work with veterans in the substance abuse unit. He is interested in seeing how their personality and hormonal factors affect their aggression.

Now in his fourth year at WCU, Bobadilla said that he has gotten to do many things that, if he had chosen to work anywhere else, he would have never gotten to do. For instance, Bobadilla has been to Japan twice so far.

His first trip was with three faculty members and seven students and was a month-long bicycle pilgrimage up and down mountains to visit monasteries.

Bobadilla also has the support of his department for his intensive research at the VA Medical Center in Asheville and taught a psychology class in Japan, his second trip to the island nation.

“I’ve gotten some great research opportunities with the faculty in the psych and criminology departments. I really love how open to collaboration people are here at Western,” he said.

Maybe Bobadilla’s year in prison was not what you expected, but his work researching domestic violence aggression and substance abuse is both a tribute to his determination to both groom his intellect and to help victims of domestic violence and substance abuse.