Education Connection

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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 48 Number 4
Fall 2015

Education Connection

Edited by Carie Forden (cforden@clarion.edu)

We continue the discussion we began in the last Education Connection column on how to provide a deeper level of community psychology training to undergraduate students.  The last column focused on three undergraduate Community Psychology programs that offered training beyond the introductory course.  The current column, written by a faculty member and two undergraduate students at Winston-Salem State University, focuses on the experience of teaching and taking the introductory community psychology course for the first time.  They suggest that the practice competencies of social justice, social change and advocacy, socio-cultural perspectives, and community development be used to frame the design of the introductory course.  They argue that the integration of these competencies into the course can better prepare undergraduate students for future careers in community work, for graduate training in community psychology, and for contributing to their own communities.

Voices and Value of an Undergraduate Community Psychology Course

Written by Dawn X. Henderson, Winston-Salem State University; Reginald Hines, Winston-Salem State University; and Lillyanna Sum, Winston-Salem State University

SCRA and its members have developed a list of competencies in graduate education training in community psychology (Connell et al., 2013; Dalton & Wolfe, 2012). However, the majority of discussion centers on the value of these competencies for graduate education and neglects the opportunity to expand curricula and pedagogy at the undergraduate level. What happens when we take the principle of social justice, competencies of social change and advocacy, socio-cultural perspectives, community development and participation to students at earlier points in the higher education experience? We gain individuals who are thinking and framing social problems and issues like community psychologists.  We produce students who have an awareness of a dynamic field of psychology and, for some, increase their persistence in graduate degrees in community psychology. Yes, the breadth and depth of the field may occur in master- and doctoral-level programs but there is value in reaching undergraduate students with these competencies.  For one, we expand the scope and knowledge of community psychology at earlier stages of an individual’s educational trajectory.  Early exposure leads to awareness and action—undergraduate students would acquire a set of competencies to address problems and challenges in their community. Secondly, increasing students pursuing community psychology at the advanced level could potentially lead to more community psychologist in academia and practice—forging new paradigms in academic departments, curriculum, and within a variety of other contexts. 

This article stems from a presentation at the 2014 Southeast Eco Community Psychology conference in South Carolina—Transforming the lens: A demonstration on shaping student “voices” and perspectives of social justice. Each of us served as co-presenters at the conference—a professor and two students. We aim to present converging perspectives from a new undergraduate course in community psychology at a liberal arts university. Accordingly, these reflections weave a common story of how competencies in community psychology transformed a curriculum, learning environment, and students’ sociopolitical orientation (Watts, Griffin, Abdul-Adil, 1999).

The Professor

I came to the university in 2012 after completing my Ph.D. in Psychology with a concentration in Community Psychology.  I was intrigued by the offer of developing a new course in community psychology within the department’s psychology paradigm.  I had great support from the Department Chair and senior faculty in teaching a pilot course in my first year and using the content to develop a new course that would become a part of the foundational knowledge area, Community, Health and Counseling.  I did not find much information for designing an introduction course and used a number of syllabi provided on SCRA’s website under “Teaching Community Psychology” and useful resources on Division 2 (American Psychological Association), Teaching of Psychology. 

Although excited about this new endeavor, I often found myself explaining the field of Community Psychology. In my first semester, I taught Introduction to Psychology using a preassigned textbook. The textbook did not mention community psychology outside a blurb on the side of one page that listed careers in psychology. This became the impetus to expose undergraduate students to community psychology and I devoted an entire week to the field. Then, I just wanted to expose the students and let them know “here is another field in psychology and guess what, it is not in your textbook.” I asked the students “why would someone not put an important field of psychology in their textbooks?” It served as a great conversation piece in the course in terms of the lack of women and ethnically diverse populations in their psychology textbook. I never knew that some of those students would later sign up for the first Introduction to Community Psychology course. 

When designing the initial syllabus I designed the weekly modules around the competencies for graduate education training in community psychology; I wanted to make sure that I was giving students knowledge in some areas at the exposure level and in-depth application of others. I also used this platform as a means to understand how this undergraduate experience in the course would increase students’ awareness of and commitment to social justice (Henderson & Wright, 2015). Students in the course were required to identify issues facing their communities, develop issue briefs about these concepts, and prepare commercials that either advocated or provided information about an agency that addressed populations within the social issue content. They had to go out into their communities and interview individuals who represented dimensions of diversity, complete community service, and engaged in numerous dialogues about oppression, immigration, poverty, homelessness, and domestic violence. Although there were small effects in terms of increasing students’ awareness of and commitment to social justice (most students entered the course with high social justice attitudes),  student reflections and responses from an open-ended assessment at the end of the course reflected developmental shifts in their perspectives, personal power, and community engagement.   As one student mentioned, “this [course] broadened my awareness about cultural diversity and individual differences in values and beliefs. By being exposed to other members in the community it allowed me to deepen my understanding of social justice and the advantages and disadvantages one faces within America.”

Reginald

I am an African American male who grew up in a small rural town in the south. I have lived in the same community for over 15 years and witnessed the depletion of youth activities, leaving many youth without safe options and hanging out in the streets.  Prior to taking the Introduction to Community Psychology course, I never knew about community psychology.  When I saw the course being offered in the spring semester I decided to take the course—this was my sophomore year in college and I was in the process of finding myself and figuring out my purpose and contribution to the world.  The description of the course was appealing and I thought we were going to spend a lot of time in our community.  I was looking forward to more hands-on experiences vastly different from other courses I had taken and also thought the course would help me figure out where I fit in. 

The course initially sparked my interest in community psychology and I began to envision how I could work with African American youth in the education system.  Many ethnically diverse youth need individuals who care about their future and are willing to put forth the effort and programs to create pathways for success.  As mentioned earlier, I saw the deterioration of youth programs and youth left in the streets in my neighborhood.  From the course, I was able to think through the value of allowing youth to voice their needs, find outlets of expression, and form connections to safe environments. 

I found some of that purpose I talked about earlier in the course.  The course made me reflect on the issues of my community and realize that I am privileged by the social space I occupy in the university.  That is where I stand and where I come from is the missing piece of the puzzle I was trying to understand—I can be the change for my community. 

The hands-on experience in the course, completing 20-hours of community service, and working with a non-profit agency to develop a commercial for one of their programs was perfectly aligned to my future goals.  Not only did I gain some relevant experience but increased my social network.  The course was also challenging in terms of the amount of reading and studies we were required to review, there were times when I felt that we were being directed towards the past and needed to focus on the present.  Nevertheless, I learned about community psychology and reflected on social justice.  I knew social justice was important, but the course provided an opportunity to think about social justice in practice. 

In closing, I think taking the course and learning about principles and methods in community psychology gives me an advantage over most of my peers—especially when thinking about this sense of community.  There is great value in offering a community psychology course to undergraduate students because many of us forget about the communities that we come from.  What is our community without the human resources to improve them?  This course provided many of us with the ability to go back to our communities and make them better.       

Lillyanna

I am a Cambodian-American female who grew up in a tightknit community in a large Metropolitan city in the southern region of the United States.  I was first introduced to community psychology by Dr. Henderson in my Introduction to Psychological Sciences course.  After a number of engaging class discussions, community psychology was unquestionably something I sought to learn more about.

Prior to taking the Introduction to Community Psychology course, I had an idea of how the course would be structured.  I knew that much of the content would be connected to what we have personally experienced.  I knew not to expect anything less of a rewarding classroom experience.  The community psychology course helped me to think beyond the basic issues our society faces and examine root causes.  I gained knowledge in how to develop prevention programs, implement and evaluate them. My most valuable experience was learning about participatory action research and a particular project that took place with a group of teenagers. While watching a video, we were able to see how research changed the teenagers’ perspectives and how their research shaped the mindsets of others.  Individuals often have a lack of interest in research, but this method gave an alternative approach. This was a new perspective for me and relevant in thinking about my future career interests that fuse organizational effectiveness, youth development, and the arts (music, poetry, photography, etc.). Since middle school, I have been heavily involved in one of the largest organizations on campus, the band. Seeing what music has done for my personal and professional development, I have made it a goal to use music to assist youth with their challenges. 

Looking back on my experience in the course, I can honestly say every learning experience was valuable. At the end of every class, I left more inspired than the class before. No matter how time consuming or seemingly “boring” the assignment may have been, we were all able to see the benefit in each experience. This course not only helped me gain more knowledge of community psychology, but it expanded my perspective of community and its effects on individuals. We were able to see how we can help change systems so that social justice exists for everyone, regardless of their physical, psychological, or economic status. I now have a better sense of my own capacity and the potential I have to impact and inspire others at an organizational and community level. I have no doubt that my undergraduate experience would not have been the same without taking the community psychology course. I believe there is extreme value in offering this course at an undergraduate level for individuals who may share common goals and interests in improving their community, especially at the social and political level. Now, as I enter my last semester in undergrad, I wish there was a more in-depth course that was offered.  Unequivocally, I believe it would enhance my skills and solidify my career goals.

Conclusion

There are landscapes we must explore, places we must go to continue to strengthen the presence and practice of community psychology. Our perspectives reflect the principles and competencies of community psychology at an undergraduate level. Merely introducing undergraduate students to community psychology piqued their interest and desire to learn more. Moreover, using competencies of community psychology afforded students the opportunity to frame social issues within dimensions of advocacy and prevention. These students began to reflect an increase in critical awareness, personal power, and even solidify their career vision.

Broadly, our perspectives demonstrate the value of community psychology at the undergraduate level. We provide a glimpse of an undergraduate experience that reflects transformative processes, community participation, and socio-cultural perspectives. We hope our voices challenge SCRA and its members to continue to forge a road of visibility and competencies of community psychology through psychology texts and, more importantly, undergraduate training. As the field of community psychology expands its presence in our broader society, we cannot forget the value of strengthening our presence and voice in undergraduate education. 

References

Connell, C.M., Lewis, R.K., Cook, J., Meissen, G., Wolf, T., Johnson-Hakim, S., Anglin, A.E., Forden, C., Gu, B., Gutierrez, R., Hostetler, R., Peterson, J., Sasao, T., & Taylor, S. (2013). Graduate training in community psychology practice competencies: Responses to the 2012 survey of graduate programs in community psychology. The Community Psychologist, 46(4), 5-8.

Dalton, J. & Wolfe, S. (2012). Competencies for community psychology practice:  Society for Community Research and Action draft August 15, 2012. The Community Psychologist, 45(4), 7-14.

Henderson, D. X., & Wright, M. (2015). Getting students to “go out and make a change:” Promoting dimensions of global citizenship and social justice in an undergraduate course.  Journal of Contemporary Issues in Higher Education, 1, 14-29.

Watts, R. J., Griffith, D. M., Abdul0Adil, J. (1999). Sociopolitical development as an anecdote for oppression—theory and action. American Journal of Community Psychology, 27 (2), 255-271.