Written by Ticola Caldwell, Phyllis Timpo, and Pamela Martin, Ph.D., North Carolina State University
Edited by Rhonda K. Lewis-Moss
After attending the 2009 Southeastern Ecological Conference, we felt obligated to share our reflections from the wealth of information that was communicated by our colleagues in our round table discussion titled "Community Psychology and social change: How does YOUR program promote lasting change in the community?" Our session was inspired by the theme of the conference: "Promoting Lasting Change in Communities." Ecological and community psychology graduate programs are designed to create scholars that are trained in a plethora of areas including: social justice, prevention, empowerment, intervention, and community development. How does this process actually happen? What specific classes, internships, additional community-based opportunities, interdisciplinary certificates or courses do the programs offer? Graduates are prepared to contribute to and work in multiple settings to create lasting change in communities. As community psychology graduate students we were interested how programs communicate fundamental skills to their graduate students. The session was well received at the conference with approximately 20 attendees, representing undergraduate students to fifth year graduate students and faculty.
Graduate students and faculty in attendance shared powerful comments and insights on factors that community psychology programs can do to promote lasting change in communities: In our personal reflection, four major themes emerged: (1) provide adequate preparation for working in the community, (2) establish a better integration of the curriculum, research and practice, (3) create a sustainable infrastructure for internships and practicums, and (4) foster mentoring relationships.
Adequately preparing students to work in communities is the first theme that promotes lasting change. Many students expressed feeling their graduate training left them apprehensive about conducting community work. Students believed they were not psychologically prepared to handle difficult settings that they may encounter in the field. Other students felt that their programs could increase the opportunities for students to become involved in the community by incorporating more internship opportunities into the curriculum or classes, specific to the skills that one needs to work in communities, beyond academia. Most students were pleased with the internship programs that were in place. However, they challenged their programs to take the next step in truly preparing them to be change agents. By taking on this challenge, programs can promote lasting change by producing more confident and effective community psychologists.
The second theme that will promote lasting change in communities is the integration of curriculum, research and practice. Currently, students discussed a disconnection between community psychology theories and the application of these theories in practice. Generally, student research is supported by elements learned in the curriculum; however, more emphasis on the implications of research to practice is needed. It is important for graduate students to have the opportunity to apply concepts and theories to praxis. This is accomplished by directly linking these three critical areas. For example, true community work will take longer than one semester; professors should consider coordinating courses allowing students to continue to build on the knowledge learned in the classroom and progress with their academic milestones. Bridging the gap between academic requirements, graduate student research, and application of theory to the real world experiences will promote lasting change by creating well-rounded community psychology scholars. Thus, students will be able to clearly serve communities using the scientist-practitioner model.
The third theme that will promote lasting change is creating a sustainable infrastructure for participating in community settings. Internships and practicums are basic mechanisms through which graduate students practice community engagement and gain hands-on experience. From the discussion we learned, the majority of the graduate students were required to complete at least one internship in a community setting. However, it can be intimidating and time consuming to find a community-based organization and begin to build rapport. Ideally, having existing university and community partnerships allows the student the opportunity to get involved in the community at the beginning of their graduate careers and begin to create lasting change. Having sustainable partnerships will establish networks and allow students to navigate through bureaucracy within organizations. This system will provide students more time to develop their community invention skills. Although, every graduate program and student is different, a sustainable infrastructure will promote lasting change by fostering a sense of trust and reciprocity between community partners and universities.
The final theme that will promote lasting change will be for programs to cultivate an extensive mentoring relationship between faculty and graduate students. Attendees envision an optimal climate where students feel comfortable approaching their advisors to discuss academic and personal experiences. This balance leaves students with a holistic experience by learning about the personal and academic skills they will need once they matriculate through community psychology programs. Students also felt that mentoring should focus more on helping students find their niche within the vast content area of community psychology. By facilitating this process, mentors can help students find their own identity within these programs, and help to solidify their research agendas more effectively. A particular faculty mentor shared that he used Backwards Mapping, a technique where students map out their graduate careers starting with graduation and ending as first year graduate students, this helped the students to project their goals, and allowed him as a mentor to be aware of the student's trajectory in graduate school. He also shared that this allowed him to become more familiar with the student more personally early on in the development of the mentoring relationship. Many students present were receptive to this idea. By using models similar to the one mentioned, community psychology programs can promote lasting change by connecting experiences between mentor and mentee in order to continue an ongoing cycle of mentorship.
Overall, this roundtable discussion enlightened us about the ways that various community psychology programs are promoting lasting change, and the ways students feel that these ideas can be improved upon. The themes:
- Providing adequate preparation for working in the community;
- Establishing a better integration of the curriculum, research and practice;
- Creating a sustainable infrastructure for internships and practica; and
- Fostering mentoring relationships.
All of these themes combined will allow community psychologists to create lasting change. It should also be noted; undergraduates in attendance offered a different perspective by stressing the need for more exposure to community psychology at the bachelor level. We can acknowledge this concern by offering community psychology and service learning curriculum at the undergraduate level. Learning from our reflections will guide our graduate experience in community psychology and allow us to become capable young scholars.
The Community Psychologist, Summer 2010