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Professor Kathryn Wiezbicki-Stevens brings learning to life through co-op programs

“I graduated from a women’s college and have always appreciated the mission of empowerment through the college experience,” explained Dr. Kathryn Wiezbicki-Stevens, Chair of the Undergraduate Psychology Department and director of Pre-Occupational Therapy Studies and Health & Human Services programs.

In 1994, Wiezbicki-Stevens was working as a psychotherapist focused on seniors when

Dr. Kathryn Wiezbicki-Stevens

she seized an opportunity to teach a course at Bay Path. Since then, she’s used her professional expertise and her personal passion for helping students to shape the sort of unique, career-focused learning experience for which Bay Path is known. 

“I started as an adjunct, teaching Psychology of Aging,” she recalled. “But I’d been a practicing therapist, and my master’s in counseling included coursework in student development and cognitive psychology—how we think, how we learn, how we remember.”

Later, Wiezbicki-Stevens earned a doctoral degree in education, specializing in pedagogy, and this range of expertise enabled her to segue from adjunct work into a full-time role at Bay Path.

Starting as an academic counselor, she met with students about academic concerns and connected them with peer tutors. Eventually, she became a faculty member, developing and teaching what was then called the “First Year Experience.” This important course was a precursor to today’s WELL 100 class, which introduces Bay Path students to thinking about personal potential and how to become learners and leaders at the University, in their communities and as they go forward in their lives.  

In 2011, when Wiezbicki-Stevens became Chair of the Psychology Department, she wanted to give students exposure to experiential learning opportunities earlier in their college career than internships typically do. “I knew that offering co-ops to students in their second year could provide support for their career exploration, help them make connections with courses, build up confidence and, of course, gain relevant work experience,” she explained. “But also, having the experience take place during sophomore year gives students something to look forward to and helps with engagement and retention.”

Each semester, eight to 10 students are accepted into the psychology program’s co-op, and each student is trained in their placement. “These are students who are eager for professional work experience in psychology and human services and to work with a diversity of populations,” said Wiezbicki-Stevens. “I meet with them individually to discuss their interests, strengths and skills, and what they’re looking for.” Students work for six to eight hours each week at partner agencies, which pay them directly, in roles that are scaled down to the appropriate experience level of a college student.

These community partnerships have enabled students to connect with children at Girls Inc. of the Valley; support victims of domestic violence at the YW Western Mass; work in several programs of ServiceNet Inc., one of the largest mental health agencies in Massachusetts; and assist with youth programming at the West Springfield Boys & Girls Club.

The co-op program differs from internships in that it also provides a weekly seminar, in which students come together to discuss and process the weightiness of service work and the situations to which they’re exposed and learn how to navigate workplace rules and boundaries as a helping professional.

“These are deep conversations about professional conduct, ethics, confidentiality, cultural humility and self-care,” explained Wiezbicki-Stevens. “Students have a lot of interest in trauma, but we also need to discuss how to set boundaries. And then, there’s also, ‘How do I ask my supervisor a question?’ ‘What is appropriate to ask, and what should I know to do on my own?’ Students will discuss how what they’re learning in a class like child development or psychopathology relates to their experiences at their co-op placement. It’s immersive, active learning.”

The success of the program has inspired Wiezbicki-Stevens and her colleagues in the Psychology Department to seek new ways to support students interested in service learning and making a difference. “The Forensic Psychology Program, under the direction of Dr. Diane Hall incorporates service learning in very creative ways. Dr. Sheila Foley and Dr. Vernon Percy have collaborated to develop a distinctive certificate program in youth development that is very popular. It’s a series of five classes offered to students who want to work with young people, and community-based learning is built into the coursework,” she explained.

Professor Wiezbicki-Stevens is also excited about the ongoing development of a professional advisory board, bringing together a diverse cohort of community organizations from psychology and health and human services agencies, to continually strengthen partnerships and evolve Bay Path’s curricula and networking opportunities, so students are prepared for employment upon graduation.

And then, there’s Wiezbicki-Stevens’ pet project, making sure she maintains strong connections with students well beyond graduation. “So many psych students keep in touch and come back to mentor our current students. I’m continuing to build on that, so that we can help students see all the professional options they have with this degree.”