GCU psych department experiencing mind expansion
By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau
Grand Canyon University has added three more full-time psychology faculty as it continues to refine a curriculum that impacts nearly 2,100 psych students in undergraduate and graduate programs.
Among the curriculum changes are a new emphasis in human cognition and neurosciences in psych courses, which gives students a stronger understanding of how brain function impacts behavior, and an alignment of psychology coursework with standards of the American Psychological Association.
GCU’s psychology courses are offered through the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, which acting dean Dr. Sherman Elliott said will offer more complex psych degrees that better prepare students for the workforce. The University offers a bachelor of science degree in psychology, in addition to master’s degrees with emphases in general psych and industrial and organizational psych. Elliott said GCU is considering adding psychology undergraduate degree emphases in niche areas like sports and performance psychology, geriatric psychology, health psychology, ministry, children and family and others.
Additionally, Elliott said the University is exploring the possibility of a master’s in human factor psychology, which would address human interaction with technology and how behaviors overlap with devices, “from cell phones to tanks,” that people use every day.
Psychology job growth looks positive
Through 2022, jobs in industrial and organizational psychology are expected to grow by 53 percent — more than any other industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That particular area of psychology trains behavioral specialists to address human resource needs, such as understanding the best way to hire, train and retain employees. Other industrial-organizational psychologists apply behavioral models to address needs in administration, sales or marketing.
By the fall, Elliott said undergraduate psych students will have a program structure that emphasizes a capstone research project and encourages them to find internships that will either direct them into a graduate program, or help them obtain entry-level jobs as research assistants, foster-care caseworkers, probation officers and other positions that require basic psychology assessments.
Dr. Laura Terry, GCU’s lead psychology faculty member, said creating an undergraduate emphasis in industrial and organizational psych could create a more direct bridge for students into the master’s degree program in that field.
Terry and fellow full-time psychology faculty Dr. Jennifer Jones and Dr. Larry Barron have been joined by psych professors Dr. Tina Ayers, Dr. Laura Chesniak-Phipps and Dr. Elizabeth Valenti to help organize the program’s evolution. The three new faculty members were hired this summer, and are located in the psychology department in Building 16, home of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
“We have a nice variety of people coming in to inform those different areas,” said Terry, a former high school counselor who’s taught at GCU since 2010.
Psychology is a field that traditionally has left many college graduates with bachelor’s degrees in general psych faced with limited entry-level positions. Many psychology students must obtain graduates degrees to become licensed to help patients. Still, Terry said she envisions students with GCU psychology bachelor’s degrees to be more prepared to go right to work, too.
“I also see many going into entry-level positions, gaining that experience, too, while they’re earning a higher degree,” Terry said.
Exposing students to range of focuses
The new psychology faculty members bring unique work experience and teaching backgrounds to their roles at GCU.
Valenti has taught psychology or criminal justice at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels at five universities, and she was a probation officer in Maricopa County for nine years. Specializing in education and addictions, her doctoral dissertation published last year investigated how compressed and traditional college coursework affected student literacy and academic success.
Ayers, who joined GCU as an adjunct professor in December, was a staff psychotherapist at Arizona State University for two years before working primarily as a community college instructor in the Valley.
This semester, Ayers is teaching both undergraduate and graduate students, and some undergrad sociology courses based on her background in social work. She said the possibilities for GCU’s psychology department are limitless since contemporary psychology now provides more job opportunities for undergraduates with social work programs, the courts and corporate health and wellness programs, among other industries.
“I love abnormal psych, but also culture and society, and learning how all those pieces fit together,” said Ayers, who started as a social worker but branched off into clinical psychology and therapy. She earned a doctorate in psychology in 2008 and has master’s degrees in social work and clinical psychology.
Chesniak-Phipps is teaching five sections of an introductory psychology course this semester after years of teaching primarily at community colleges in Illinois. Chesniak-Phipps said she has developed a specialty in community psychology and adolescent behavior. Her doctoral dissertation examined factors that lead to teen sexual behavior.
She is thrilled that the University emphasizes teacher interaction with students in the classroom.
“The exciting thing is that because it’s a (prerequisite) course, every student who comes through GCU has to take it. It’s an opportunity to show them what psychology is about as a field,” Chesniak-Phipps said.
Reach Michael Ferraresi at 602-639-7030 or [email protected].