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Volume 49 Number 2
Edited by Carie Forden
This Education Connection column offers a series of reflections on community psychology education outside of the Ph.D. Nghi Thai, Susana Helm, and Dick Leavy describe the challenges they have faced with promoting student interest and engagement in community psychology programs, courses, and content, and they suggest strategies based in recruitment, course development, and undergraduate research. Michael Morris uses an ecological framework to discuss his experiences with teaching in and directing a long-running freestanding master’s degree program, and he describes the strategies his program has used to deal with challenges around community engagement, interdisciplinary collaboration, student recruitment, and maintaining quality. All four authors provide us with an opportunity to consider how we might best support the sustainability and growth of community psychology in our universities.
Written by Nghi D. Thai (email@example.com), Central Connecticut State University, Susana Helm (firstname.lastname@example.org), University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, and Richard L. Leavy (email@example.com) Ohio Wesleyan University
The growth of the field of community psychology is evident with currently 45 doctoral programs, 28 master’s programs, and 5 undergraduate programs in the United States and internationally (Society for Community Research and Action [SCRA], 2016). Of the masters programs listed, 15 are in schools without doctoral programs. Furthermore, a recent Education Connection column of The Community Psychologist highlighted three burgeoning undergraduate community psychology certificate and concentration programs as a means to introducing students to community psychology earlier in their academic careers (Forden, 2014).
A roundtable was organized at SCRA’s 15th Biennial Conference to discuss the challenges community psychology programs and/or courses face when not linked with community psychology doctoral programs. Roundtable participants generally were community psychologists working as community psychologists in departments of psychology or similarly named departments in schools of social science, some of whom are faculty in community psychology programs. The roundtable discussion centered around ideas for (1) student recruitment, as well as (2) working within our respective program parameters to infuse community psychology into teaching, research, service, and practice (see Table 1). Below, three faculty members from different institutions and at different stages in their careers share their experiences with developing and sustaining community psychology programs and courses.
Table 1. Roundtable Themes
Areas of Focus
Program Parameters and CP
Community Psychology at a State School (Nghi D. Thai)
Despite a strong community psychology presence in Connecticut since the opening of Seymour Sarason’s Yale Psycho-Educational Clinic in 1961, followed by the University of New Haven community psychology master’s program (1974), Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) community psychology master’s program (1977), The Consultation Center at Yale (1978), and other community psychology related programs, community psychology’s visibility continues to be a challenge for recruiting students into our master’s level graduate program at CCSU. A vast majority of students at both undergraduate and graduate levels have never heard of community psychology and there appears to be several reasons contributing to this: a) lack of coverage and representation in introductory psychology textbooks; b) limited undergraduate courses on community psychology; and c) very few faculty who identify as community psychologists or conduct community psychology-related research at academic institutions. As a result of this lack of exposure and understanding of what the field has to offer, only a small number of students are interested in applying for community psychology master’s programs.
As a faculty member in my fourth year, we began implementing various strategies two years ago to strengthen the program and make recruitment a priority. Getting the word out and letting people know about our program has been very important and has included creating, redesigning, and updating websites, brochures, bulletin boards, and billboards. Promotion of the program has also occurred at open houses, conferences, and informational sessions. The informational sessions are more targeted and appear to be more successful for potential students to learn and ask questions about the community psychology program.
The master’s program itself has also gone through some changes with the addition of community-based research experiences, evaluation research, and global psychology. In the classroom, connecting students to the broader community and incorporating applied research experiences has been extremely beneficial. For example, borrowing from the education department, I incorporated the community walk as a method for students to learn and be more engaged with the New Britain community. After the community walk, one student wrote, “…the biggest thing I took away from the community walk experience was an increased desire to get involved and help facilitate change.” After taking the introductory community psychology course in the fall semester, students taking the prevention and community-based research course in the spring semester work together in teams on community-based research projects with a community partner. Community partners are invited to the classrooms to share their background and experience throughout the semester to provide both context and consultation for the projects, and then are invited back at the end of the semester to see the student presentations. This interaction with community partners has proven to be a motivating experience and students comment again and again about how they feel they are contributing to something of high value and importance for the community members that will actually be utilized. Both the evaluation research and global psychology courses are being offered for the first time this spring semester.
These changes take time but are already showing positive impacts. We had the highest number of incoming community psychology students enter the program this past fall, and as more students learn about what community psychology is, either they themselves or people they know want to apply to the program. As the program strengthens, more collaborative relationships are built with community partners, and as the word gets out, we are hopeful that positive changes will continue. SCRA’s role and support will be beneficial for smaller master’s programs like ours to continue and flourish.
Community Psychology at a Medical School (Susana Helm)
Among my impressions of several past biennials regarding overarching discourses on community psychology (CP), one discourse has questioned the stability and sustainability of a CP brand in and beyond the field of psychology, which has implications for education and training. To oversimplify, it seems that both the early pioneers and the newly minted CPs have been/are concerned that absent a clear identity, CP may lose its focus and render itself obsolete. If no one knows what CP is, then no one will want to use it. Not only might the dissolution of CP annul much of the good work by our predecessors, recent graduates likely would encounter employment challenges beyond those since the 2008 global financial crisis. Although I felt the CP brand indeterminacy was less evident this summer in Lowell, it softly enveloped the emergent themes in our roundtable – student recruitment and program parameters vis-à-vis CP.
As a community psychologist engaged in community and cultural psychology in a Department of Psychiatry’s Research Division; my school of medicine context may be a little different from my social/natural sciences colleagues. Like many U.S. schools of medicine, our students enter with bachelor’s degrees or the equivalent, and progress academically through a tightly defined series of courses and internships with a cohort, all of whom graduate together four years later. As a result, there is no undergraduate program in psychiatry, nor do we mentor masters and doctoral candidates as they complete theses and dissertations. Our students are pursuing MDs not PhDs, and residents and fellows already earned their medical degree. We are not recruiting students on the merits of our CP program specifically or CP prowess in general, nor are we striving to enhance the relevance of CP in our program. Nonetheless, like other roundtable participants, I struggle with student recruitment and CP relevance. My main job responsibility is to conduct research. Naturally, as a community and cultural psychologist, CP frames much of the inquiry process in our studies. And as an academic researcher, I depend on student contributions to assist with activities ranging from literature searches for study conceptualization; to data collection, data management, and analysis; to dissemination and grant writing.
Fortunately, our department has a single undergraduate course by which upper level students may enroll in directed studies (PSTY 499). Although we did not start out collaborating with each other on student recruitment, screening, and enrollment into PSTY 499, the research faculty have been aligning our efforts strategically since Fall 2014. Initially, each faculty used her/his own network to recruit and screen students, and mentored in their own lab. We collectively agreed that student involvement in our research was mutually beneficial to each of us as faculty as well as the students. So we decided a more strategic approach likely would accrue improved benefits to the faculty, the students, and the projects. We developed a streamlined approach, which includes a semi-monthly seminar which I facilitate (students are assigned literature, provide lab updates, and discuss professional development). We recruit third-year undergraduates so that they may participate for more than two semesters. While we recruit from most departments across our university, highest interest and actual enrollment and retention has been among psychology and public health students. We are very pleased that over the past decade our directed research students have matriculated in graduate programs in Hawai`i and beyond in community psychology, social work, public health, and medicine among other academic disciplines; and they have made meaningful contributions to our projects as evidenced by authorship on published manuscripts and presentations at peer-reviewed conferences locally, nationally, and internationally. Feedback from prior students who are in graduate school or already working in their field has indicated that learning about how and why culture matters in health and mental health, and working with the community as a partner has enhanced their work, and for some former students changed their career trajectory in this direction. While student recruitment continues to be a challenge in spite of our improved strategic approach, and being in a medical school often feels like working at the margins of community psychology, CP is evident in action, even if not by name.
Community Psychology at a Liberal Arts College (Richard L. Leavy)
I have been teaching community psychology to undergraduate psychology majors at Ohio Wesleyan University for more than 30 years. I have been the only person with a community psychology background in the department. Typically, students take the course in their junior or senior year, but have never actually heard of the field prior to walking into class. The syllabus provides an introduction: “Community psychology is an approach to social problems that fosters social change by seeking to maximize the fit between people and their environment. It is the study of how individuals affect communities and communities affect individuals. As the name implies, community psychology is done where people live, work, and go to school, not in a clinician’s office. The goals of this course are to increase your knowledge of community psychology’s principles and practices and to provide opportunities to see prevention efforts in the community around you.”
To achieve that last goal, students have typically been required to do a project in which they identify a social problem (e.g., sexual assault, drunk driving, childhood obesity) that they care about. They research the scope of the problem nationally and the effectiveness of prevention programs to address it. After choosing their “favorite” prevention program, they contact local key informants – most often agency directors – to learn the dimensions of the problem in the community surrounding the university. They are prompted to ask these officials what current prevention efforts exist and the likelihood that their favorite program might be adopted locally. These conversations usually open students’ eyes to the challenges of funding and sustaining programs and the need to modify programs in order to match community context. On occasion, student initiatives have augmented community action. An added bonus is that agency personnel often gain an appreciation of community psychology’s potential.
Community psychology, as we know, is underappreciated, even in academic circles. In the past year I have changed the project in the course. Instead of focusing on the town around us, the current edition of the course seeks a way to use community research and action to assist the university. The target problem is student attrition and its possible relationship to psychological sense of community. Our method for addressing the problem this semester is through participatory action research. My hope is that using this method to teach about community psychology will lead to several good outcomes. First, students will learn first-hand about a key topic in community research. Learning-by-doing is a surefire way to increase student engagement and retention of knowledge. In addition, students will come face-to-face with the factors that foster and thwart social change. They will have to identify the administrators who are influential and persuadable, and then develop ways to effectively voice their concerns. We hope, of course, that the project will assist the university. It will uniquely present a students’ eye view of the barriers to a psychological sense of community on campus and guide steps that might improve student retention. Finally, the heretofore unknown field of community psychology may get some recognition in the minds of university administrators. Perhaps after I retire, there will be greater value placed on finding a replacement who knows about community psychology.
The participatory action research approach we are using is Photovoice, a method by which participants take pictures and write stories that depict a key concern in their lives. My students have been taking pictures of the places and activities on campus that have both served to strengthen and weaken their sense of belonging. Independently they have written stories about their pictures and identified common themes in their group discussions. This is not unlike the pedagogical use of Photovoice described by Lichty (2013) but with the added goal of developing a picture-and-story presentation we can give to administrators. We are currently in the presentation-development phase of the project. I am hopeful that as a result of Photovoice my students will better appreciate participatory action research and the university will make use of student-generated ideas concerning ways to build community and decrease attrition. As a bonus, perhaps the field of community psychology will get to be a bit more widely appreciated.
As we reflect on the status of community psychology courses and programs from the perspectives of being the only community psychology faculty at our respective universities and/or departments, both our identities as community psychologists and our work to infuse community psychology are integral to who we are and what we want to promote for the field of community psychology. Student recruitment and engagement are prominent themes for all of us and will continue to be important areas for development in the future.
Forden, C. (2014). Education connection. The Community Psychologist, 44(4). Retrieved October 18, 2015, from https://www.scra27.org/publications/tcp/tcp-past-issues/tcpfall2014/education-connection/
Lichty, L. F. (2013). Photovoice as a pedagogical tool in the community psychology classroom. Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, 41(2), 89-96. doi:10.1080.10852342.2013.757984
Society for Community Research and Action. (2016). The Council for Education Programs (CEP). Retrieved from https://www.scra27.org/what-we-do/education/
Written by Michael Morris (firstname.lastname@example.org), University of New Haven
Over three decades ago, an anonymous reviewer of a manuscript on master’s-level training in community psychology that my colleagues and I had submitted to the American Journal of Community Psychology (Hoffnung, Morris, & Jex, 1986), commented, in the midst of a positive evaluation of the paper, that there probably was not much of a future for such training. The reviewer doubted that CP programs could penetrate a labor market already populated by a variety of better known master’s degrees relevant to human services and the public sector. Although one can argue with the accuracy of the reviewer’s prediction—the SCRA website currently lists 16 master’s programs in the U.S. that include “community” in their title—it is almost certainly true that most of these programs exist in environments that pose ongoing challenges to their sustainability. That is the case with the University of New Haven’s program, one of the oldest freestanding CP programs in the country, dating back to the early 1970s. In this essay I would like to employ an ecological framework (Kloos et al., 2012) to reflect on these challenges—and strategies for dealing with them—based on my 37 years (yikes!) of experience as a core faculty member in the program, the last decade or so as its director. As I paddle my academic kayak toward retirement, I hope these reflections are useful to my colleagues in the field.
The anonymous reviewer was right in at least one major respect: the higher education marketplace in the U.S. is replete with master’s degrees that compete with CP—for example, in social work, counseling, criminal justice, marriage and family therapy, school psychology, clinical psychology, and public administration. When the marketing staff at UNH asked me to identify the programs that most directly compete for our students, how I wish that I could simply limit the list to CP programs in the Northeast (UMass Lowell, Central Connecticut State University, the Sage Colleges, etc.). My list of competitors is very long, and continues to grow as schools venture into the theme park of hybrid/online degrees in human-service-related domains. I must admit that something strikes me as fundamentally askew with the notion of largely online community psychology programs, but I plead guilty to being socialized in an educational era that is increasingly viewed as quaint by high-level academic administrators.
Against this background, the value-added perspective discussed by Elias and others (Elias, Manuel, Summer, & Basch, 2015; Elias, Neigher, & Johnson-Hakim, 2015) has proven to be valuable when recruiting students to our program. We emphasize the job relevance of training in areas such as program evaluation, consultation, prevention, and systems change, which are domains that non-CP programs are less likely to address in depth. Although we mention the advantages of having an ecological, multi-level perspective on human problems, our anecdotal experience is that the value of this mindset is more likely to be appreciated post-graduation than pre-enrollment.
It is also helpful that, all other things being equal, many if not most undergraduate psychology majors wish to maintain their identification with psychology as they pursue their graduate education. This preference can partially compensate for the fact that a CP degree is a less direct route to professional licensure at the master’s level than a social work or counseling degree.
All of our students do their year-long internship in Connecticut, and most of them obtain their first post-graduation job here as well. Cultivating a network of organizations that are supportive of training and employing CP students is thus a crucial task. Agencies with the same espoused vision (e.g., serving troubled youth) can differ greatly in the educational backgrounds they regard as most appropriate for professional practice in the name of that vision. We devote relatively little time trying to persuade agencies with a narrow view to develop a broader perspective that includes community psychology. Usually, the return-on-investment of such effort is just too low to warrant its expenditure. Rather, we focus on less guild-oriented settings that frame their mission in a way that values the contributions of trainees and staff from a variety of backgrounds. Also, we stay connected with our employed graduates in the region to expand the network of settings that welcome CP students.
It is important for us to develop internships in a wide range of content areas, given the varied career and professional interests of our students. We work with mental health agencies, youth service bureaus, community coalitions, philanthropic foundations, schools, community-based programs for the mentally ill and previously incarcerated, substance abuse prevention and treatment agencies, advocacy organizations, programs that work with gang-related youth, and community action agencies, among others. This is a labor-intensive endeavor, to be sure, since our highly individualized approach to placing students does not enable us to guarantee internship settings that they will receive a student from our program every year. In this case, however, the quality of training outcomes achieved justifies the substantial effort involved.
The University of New Haven is a private, tuition-driven institution, like countless other universities in the U.S. In such an environment, the pressure to maintain or “grow” enrollments is ever-present, generating an ambient organizational buzz similar to the din produced by millions of chirping crickets in a tree-filled New England neighborhood on a late autumn evening. Virtually every week a report is distributed to master’s-program coordinators, presenting point-in-time data (and comparisons with the previous year) for numbers of applications, acceptances, and enrollments for every graduate program. It’s sort of like watching the value of your investments in the stock market fluctuate from day to day.
Of course, CP programs are not uniquely subject to this pressure. In my experience, the key is to keep enrollment high enough so that deans and provosts don’t start targeting the program for elimination, but not so high that the program is viewed as a “cash cow” candidate, where there can be pressure to increase enrollment significantly (perhaps at the expense of student qualifications) without a commensurate increase in program resources. The latter scenario is a recipe for dilution of program quality.
A second organizational dynamic that is more distinctively associated with community psychology involves interdepartmental relationships that reflect the interdisciplinary nature of our field. Courses in areas such as sociology, education, public administration, and criminal justice can enhance the breadth and quality of our students’ CP education. Nurturing linkages with colleagues throughout the institution can enable a relatively small number of CP faculty in a psychology department to offer a rich master’s-level curriculum.
A challenge here is quality control. The caliber of departments (and individual faculty within departments) can vary tremendously across a university, and one department does not typically have a major (or even minor) say in who teaches courses in another department. As a program director, having students complain to me about the inadequacies of a course they are taking outside of our department can be a highly frustrating experience, to put it mildly. Departments differ considerably in how responsive they are to feedback about their courses from colleagues, and there are instances where I have stopped recommending courses that have continued to be ineptly taught. When interdisciplinary education conflicts with quality education, the latter must prevail.
Not surprisingly, the microsystem that most directly influences a master’s program is the department that houses the program. As I’ve suggested, one doesn’t necessarily need a lot of CP-trained faculty in the department to run a worthwhile program—we currently have two—but one does need a supportive group of departmental colleagues. Over the years our CP program has enjoyed such support, mainly provided by the faculty who teach in the department’s master’s program in industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology. We share courses in statistics and research methods, and CP students take selected I/O courses (e.g., Organizational Behavior). There are also cases where I/O students take courses that are primarily associated with the CP program (e.g., Program Evaluation). Faculty in both programs attempt to shape their courses in a fashion that makes them responsive to the multiple constituencies enrolled. Indeed, during a period of low enrollment in the CP program a couple of decades ago, it was the enrollment of I/O students in certain CP courses that allowed those offerings to escape the scrutiny of university administrators.
The other core component of the program’s microsystem is the adjunct faculty who teach selected courses. The quality of these practitioners, in terms of both their content expertise and teaching ability, is essential. We have been fortunate over the years that our locality-based contacts have enabled us to attract a skilled set of enthusiastic part-time faculty whom we endeavor to support in ways that go beyond the modest pay they receive for teaching (e.g., post-course debriefing lunches).
Strong programs require strong students. For us, this means students who can handle a challenging, writing-intensive curriculum that includes a significant applied research component (statistics/research methods/program evaluation). Naturally, we seek students who have a record of involvement in community life as evidenced by undergraduate field work, volunteer activity, and/or relevant employment, but there is no denying the fact that students with a strong undergraduate GPA are more likely to complete the program than those with weaker GPAs. Thus, it is not often that we accept applicants in the latter category.
Overall, the students who probably thrive the most in our program are those with the greatest commitment to the systems-change perspective of the field. These are most often, but not always, the students in the Program Development concentration. Community/Clinical Services and Forensic Psychology students tend to enter the program with a more individualistic orientation, though most of them become more ecologically savvy and engaged as they make their way through the curriculum, an outcome consistent with the value-added analysis discussed by Elias and others (2015).
Master’s level community psychology programs are likely to remain outside of the mainstream in graduate psychology training for the foreseeable future, and that might not be a bad thing. Being on the periphery of, rather than embedded in, social institutions can enhance one’s ability to develop an appropriately critical perspective on that institution. We only need to look as far as the Hoffman Report to see what can happen when a profession becomes overcommitted to currying favor with the reigning political mother ship. Master’s training in community psychology will continue to be pursued by undergraduate psychology majors with an interest in social change who want to maintain their identification with psychology but don’t see themselves fitting neatly into the dominant, more traditional, subfields of the discipline. Will there be enough of these students to sustain this training in the decades to come? The evidence from the past five decades would suggest that the answer is “yes,” but predicting the future of such programs in the volatile, increasingly competitive world of higher education is risky at best (see also Kloos, 2015). Stay tuned.
Elias, M. J., Manuel, A., Summer, M., & Basch, D. (2015). Community psychology as a value-added proposition for students. The Community Psychologist, 48(1). Retrieved from https://www.scra27.org/publications/tcp/tcp-past-issues/tcpspring2015/special-feature/
Elias, M. J., Neigher, W. D., & Johnson-Hakim, S. (2015). Guiding principles and competencies for community psychology practice. In. V. C. Scott & S. M. Wolf (Eds.), Community psychology: Foundations for practice (pp. 35-62). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Hoffnung, R. J., Morris, M., & Jex, S. (1986). Training community psychologists at the master’s level: A case study of outcomes. American Journal of Community Psychology, 14(3), 339-349.
Kloos, B. (2015). Strategic complacency, embracing risk, and sustaining SCRA. The Community Psychologist, 48(3). Retrieved from https://www.scra27.org/publications/tcp/presidents-column/
Kloos, B., Hill, J., Thomas, E., Wandersman, A., Elias, M. J., & Dalton, J. H. (2012). Community psychology: Linking individuals and communities (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.