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Developing an Undergraduate Community Psychology Program in a Graduate Institution

Developing an Undergraduate Community Psychology Program in a Graduate Institution by  Christopher B. Keys, Olya Glantsman, Susan D. McMahon, and Leonard A. Jason

Author(s): Christopher B. Keys, Olya Glantsman, Susan D. McMahon, and Leonard A. Jason


This article provides an overview of the undergraduate degree program in community psychology at DePaul University. The recommendation of an undergraduate student ignited latent student and faculty interest. A program-bigger than a course but smaller than a major-was developed in 2005-2006 and was first offered in 2006-2007. Subsequently, this Community Concentration has been well received by students and has grown to an enrollment of about 20-25 students annually (Glantsman, McMahon, & Njoku, 2015). Graduates have gone onto positions in community and public agencies, graduate school in community psychology and related fields, and other relevant contexts. We highlight the three primary phases in the history of the Community Concentration: (1) building upon a receptive institutional context, (2) creating the program, and (3) developing learning opportunities. For each phase we identify focal elements important to its success. We consider their transferability to other educational settings that include both undergraduate and graduate community psychology educational opportunities. We note the accomplishments, challenges and strengths of the program. Finally, we offer this case study to encourage faculty in other educational institutions to develop more and better learning opportunities for undergraduate students in community psychology.


This article was originally published in a Special Issue of GJCPP titled, “Developing Undergraduate Community Psychology Pedagogy and Research Practice,” edited by Eylin Palamaro-Munsell, Lauren F. Lichty, & Jen Wallin-Ruschman. Download the PDF version to access the complete article, including Tables and Figures.

For some time, community psychologists have been concerned that undergraduate students typically have few opportunities to learn about or focus in depth on community psychology. Few introductory psychology texts mention this subfield (Bauer, Glantsman, Hochberg, Turner, & Jason, 2017; Cook, 1987; Douglas, Glantsman, Brown, Lemke, Johnson-Hakim, Wolff, & Meissen, 2014), and the preponderance of undergraduate psychology curricula lack even a course in community psychology. These two special issue of the Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice (GJCPP) addresses this concern by showcasing a number of ways to educate undergraduate students about community psychology. This manuscript tells the story of the creation and development of a multi-course Community Psychology Concentration for psychology majors at DePaul University, an institution with deep roots in the values and teaching of community psychology, especially at the graduate level. As a field, we need to grow our undergraduate and graduate educational programs (McMahon, Jimenez, Bond, Wolfe, & Ratcliffe, 2015), teach more community psychology courses, reach more students, graduate more community psychologists, and raise the visibility of community psychology (Jimenez, Sánchez, McMahon, & Viola, 2016). We submit that an important way to educate more undergraduate students about community psychology and grow the field is to take advantage of the settings, resources, experiences, and talents of graduate community psychology programs and other resources on campus and in the community. We offer the specifics from DePaul’s efforts as what we hope is a constructive example of the development of an undergraduate community psychology program. To convey the initial phases of this process, we focus on three important periods: the receptive institutional context, the creation of the program, and the building of the curriculum and related learning opportunities over time. For each phase, we identify focal elements and consider their transferability to other graduate and undergraduate settings. We also consider the accomplishments, challenges and strengths of the program to date. We underscore the importance of graduate programs in community psychology investing in the future by developing greater undergraduate opportunities to learn about our field.

Building upon a Receptive Institutional Context: Phase One Mission and Values of DePaul University

Seymour Sarason’s (1972) insightful account of the creation of settings highlighted the period before a new setting was created. He called that prehistory period “Before the beginning,” and by naming it so distinctively, sought to convey the importance of what preceded the creation of a setting in subsequently shaping it. In that spirit, first, we will describe the focal elements of the ecological niche from which our Community Psychology Concentration at DePaul University emerged. One focal element of this institutional context is the mission and values of DePaul University. The university is named for the Roman Catholic priest St. Vincent de Paul, who was dedicated to serving the poor in France in the seventeenth century. The university’s mission and value of service are compatible with the goals of community psychology. The Vincentian religious order founded DePaul over 120 years ago to provide higher education to immigrants and others at society’s margins. DePaul’s Vincentian mission still focuses on social justice, promoting inclusion and community outreach to underrepresented populations from diverse backgrounds who make up more than one third of the student body. The university values developing positive relationships with community-based organizations and creating service learning opportunities for our students to engage with and learn from the community. The values, scholarship, and action orientation of community psychology provide an ideal fit with the Vincentian mission. This mission tends to attract students and faculty with an orientation toward social justice, service, and community engagement, values held by many institutions of higher education presently. Enhancing coverage of community psychology in undergraduate curricula can advance university missions.  By graduating students who have developed community psychological competencies in real-world settings through fieldwork and service learning experiences, universities can increase the number of effective, collaborative contributors to social justice in increasingly global and diverse work settings (McMahon et al., 2015).

Experience and Knowledge regarding Educational Programs and the Local Setting

Having experience and knowledge regarding educational programs and the local setting is a second focal element in the institutional context that can facilitate the development of new programs (cf., Keys, McMahon, Gooden, Back, & DiGangi, 2009). Over the years, a number of faculty have played instrumental roles in the development and maintenance of community psychology education at DePaul University. Ed Zolik was an early clinical community psychologist who initiated the community psychology agenda at DePaul University. In 1967, he transformed our part-time evening master’s psychology program into a full-time doctoral program with an emphasis on clinical community psychology, making it one of the oldest doctoral programs of any sort in community psychology. Another early development was the offering of community-related graduate (Jason, 1977) and undergraduate coursework. Beginning in 1978, an undergraduate internship program was begun at DePaul University (Jason, & Smith, 1980), which Leonard A. Jason and Ernie Doleys later developed into a Human Services Program. This program within the Psychology major prepared undergraduate students for further education and work in clinical and other kinds of applied psychology. It consisted of both coursework in applied psychology and field work with an emphasis on intensive supervision and training for helping people in need. A broad program, it included some material and experience relevant to community mental health and community psychology which were closely aligned at that time (Jason, 1981); however, it did not have an identifiable track focused on community psychology. Consequently, it addressed the community interests of some students; others took courses based on social justice, sociology, and other community psychology values in other social science departments. In brief, from this experience the faculty involved learned how to establish a new curricular program as part of the psychology major.

Faculty Opportunities for Students to Learn about Community Psychology

In the 1980s, the core group of clinical community faculty included Ed Zolik, Leonard A. Jason, LaVome Robinson, Rod Watts, and Pat Tolan. One of the strengths of the program was a commitment to diversity among its graduate students. In the 1990s and 2000s, other core members of the clinical community faculty included Gary Harper, Susan McMahon, Gayle Iwamasa, Brigida Hernandez, Bernadette Sanchez, Patrick Fowler, Nathan Todd and Chris Keys. These faculty individually provided many opportunities for undergraduate students to learn about community psychology. Their active research groups and related projects were another focal element in the DePaul ecology receptive to community psychology for undergraduate students. The faculty and participating doctoral students involved undergraduate students in community studies as research assistants, independent study students, honors students and/or volunteers. Clinical community psychology faculty and doctoral students actively mentored undergraduate students with community psychology interests. Faculty also taught an introductory undergraduate course in community psychology, sometimes with a service learning component. They also often introduced community psychology and its values in other courses they taught.

In 2000, Joseph Ferrari and Leonard A. Jason launched a doctoral program in community psychology because some students wanted an in-depth education in community psychology. They did not apply to the clinical-community program because they were not interested in becoming clinicians. Some students in the clinical community program found it challenging to focus on the community aspects of the program due to the overwhelming commitments of clinical training. Also, there were several faculty across the psychology department who had community psychological interests (McMahon, Jason, & Ferrari, 2010). Over the years, the doctoral program in community psychology has accepted about 3 students per year and has grown to include a number of interdisciplinary faculty from other subdisciplines of psychology and from other academic units on campus who do, or are interested in, community-based research.

Faculty Leaders in Community Psychology Nationally and Locally

The community and clinical community psychology graduate programs at DePaul University were successful prior to the founding of the undergraduate program. Among faculty and former students, 7 from DePaul University have been elected Presidents of the Society for Community Research and Action, 4 prior to the initiation of the Community Concentration (G. Anne Bogat, Jean Hill, Leonard A. Jason, Chris Keys) and 3 following the launch of the program (Susan McMahon, Brad Olson, Susan Torres Harding). Joseph Ferrari has been editor of the Journal of Prevention and Intervention in the Community for over two decades. Community psychologists also have held leadership positions at DePaul which have helped foster and sustain the community program. Leonard A. Jason led the largest research institute on campus, the Center for Community Research. Joseph Ferrari, Susan McMahon, and Bernadette Sanchez all served as directors of the Community Psychology Doctoral Program. Chris Keys served as psychology Department Chair during the initial development of the program and Susan McMahon supported the community program as Department Chair following its initial development.

In sum, the institutional mission, the four decades of experience and knowledge from developing doctoral education in clinical community and community psychology and a related undergraduate program were important elements. Furthermore, many research, course and mentoring opportunities for undergraduate students with community psychology graduate students and faculty, and faculty leaders in community psychology nationally and locally also contributed meaningfully. All these focal elements interacted to create an institutional context favorably disposed to the development of greater educational opportunities for undergraduate students in community psychology. “Before the beginning” there was fertile soil for planting the idea of an undergraduate program in community psychology at DePaul University.

Transferability of Insights regarding Institutional Context

In considering how this experience may transfer to and have implications for other educational settings, we suggest that just as DePaul had no community psychology faculty or program at one point in time, so may other institutions. To begin, identify qualities of a university and an academic unit that may encourage the development of a community psychology undergraduate program or other related program. It is helpful to examine the match between community psychology values and those of the host institution and academic unit. Often there are some. To be specific, many universities, colleges and departments have social justice, scientific grounding, community health, diversity, service learning, and/or community engagement as central values or at least strategic directions. Thus, community psychology values may resonate with the mission of many institutions, graduate and undergraduate, including those who presently have no programs in the field.

 Also, consider the importance of faculty to any community program and the limited number of community psychology faculty, if any, in many academic departments. It can be worthwhile to identify other faculty and staff on campus inside and outside the Psychology Department with community psychology training and/or interests. Faculty and staff from outside of the Psychology Department may become affiliated faculty for a community program and/or may teach a course in the program, perhaps as part of their existing role. They may have relevant experience with program development and leadership, and/or may be involved in community projects that can offer learning opportunities for students.

Creating the Program: Phase Two

Based on the distinctive, yet replicable, institutional context of DePaul that arose from the previous four decades, faculty set out to create a new undergraduate program in community psychology as the second phase in this program development. Given the historical context, one issue was how would a Community Concentration complement the existing Human Services Program in the undergraduate curriculum?

When the Human Services Program was developed in 1980, there were fewer than 20 students enrolled (Jason, 1984). By the early 2000s, there were more than 60. Since the classes were initially planned to provide intensive supervision and training, larger classes made accomplishing this goal more difficult. Moreover, the Human Services Program had no electives for students to choose, rather, a full set of required courses. The community faculty and the director of the Human Services Program thought a new Community Psychology Program would complement and relieve some crowding in our Human Services Program. Those students interested in improving individual health and well-being could receive training that emphasized one-to-one approaches through the Human Services Program. Those interested in more systems-level approaches to social justice and change and/or greater flexibility in selecting electives could find an intellectual and action home in the Community Psychology Concentration. Focal elements in creating this community program included: Student energy and interest, the mission and goals of the program, and faculty engagement, each of which built on the others.

Student Energy and Interest

An initial focal element was the energy and interest of students, which were evident before the beginning of the community program. By the early to mid-2000s, having taken the introduction to community psychology course, a growing number of undergraduate students at DePaul told the community faculty about their interests in community psychology. In 2005, one student wrote:

[Reading articles on community psychology] I was sure I had found the perfect blend of science and compassion. It is from this context that I respectfully suggest that the DePaul psychology department develop an undergraduate focus in community psychology. I have met many undergraduate students with a commitment to social justice that feel isolated from the psychology department, and I am also aware of many students who have never considered psychology as a valid means of achieving social change. The creation of this focus would not only attract more students into the field, but I also believe it would increase DePaul’s stature as one of the only universities in the United States (to my knowledge) to offer this program to undergraduates. 

This student prepared a full letter requesting stronger undergraduate opportunities in community psychology and gave it to Chris Keys, his introduction to community psychology instructor.

The Mission and Goals of the Community Psychology Program   

The second element of creating the program focused on its mission and goals.  The mission of the community program was to enhance undergraduate opportunities to learn about and develop competencies in community psychology. The goals included: 1) Offering distinctive education in community psychology, emphasizing large scale prevention of mental and physical problems, program evaluation, and consultation; 2) Enabling students to develop research and practice competencies as community researchers and advocates for social justice and empowerment; 3) Actively illustrating to students and community organization staff the relevance of academic work in applied settings; 4) Assisting students in building and/or applying technical, communication and interpersonal skills in a work environment; 5) Strengthening students’ confidence in their abilities to function effectively in a professional setting; and 6) Enhancing students’ opportunities for future success as graduate students and/or employees in many fields that value community psychology knowledge, competencies and experience. The interest and engagement of students and faculty gave rise to the vision embodied in the mission and goals of the community program. In turn, the mission and goals further mobilized student and faculty involvement in the development of the program.

As approved, this new community program aimed to instantiate the mission and goals articulated above. It was designed to educate students in research methodologies to be applied in social and community interventions. It sought to prepare students to be community professionals in the public and not-for-profit sectors working with diverse populations, in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, disability, sexual orientation, etc. It aimed to provide students with educational and practical skills for scientific and leadership development as community advocates for social justice and empowerment of those at the margins. It included both theoretical and applied components, and the experience culminated with a community internship/fieldwork experience. Finally, a program in community psychology enabled students to develop the skills to work in collaborative ways with community agencies, not-for-profit groups, and grass-root organizations, as well as to do graduate study in community psychology and related disciplines.

Faculty Engagement

A third focal element for creating the program was faculty engagement. This engagement included the faculty support for and participation in the development of the program proposal. When Chris Keys shared the student letter with the community psychology doctoral program faculty, they were excited by the request and decided to propose an undergraduate program in community psychology. However, faculty were already committed to their research, teaching and service responsibilities and had modest time to devote to program development.

Fortunately, Olya Glantsman was then an advanced doctoral student in DePaul’s community psychology program. She became inspired by the vision for the Community Concentration and took a leadership role in its creation. With Leonard A. Jason, she did background research and helped formulate the proposal for the program. In this effort she was also supported by other community psychology faculty from inside and outside the psychology department, including Douglas Cellar, Joseph Ferrari, Harvette Grey, Gary Harper, Brigida Hernandez, Gayle Iwamasa, Chris Keys, Susan McMahon, W. LaVome Robinson, Bernadette Sanchez, and Midge Wilson.

The leadership of the community psychology faculty in the approval process also helped bring the proposed community program to life. Like many, if not all, institutions of higher education, at DePaul University obtaining approval for a new program is a multi-level process that requires formal endorsement from several parts of the organizational hierarchy. As Community Psychology Program Director, Susan McMahon along with Leonard Jason led the effort to obtain approval from the Community Psychology faculty and then from the Psychology Department faculty. These faculty and Chris Keys as department chair next sought and obtained approval from the Curriculum Committee within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and finally the University Curriculum Committee. In order to gain the necessary approvals at each level, there were presentations and discussions, input was provided and feedback responded to, and modifications were made. This process took most of an academic year (2005-2006) to complete.

In sum, the first focal element most relevant to creating a community program was the energy and interest of students who became advocates for and were involved in the creation of the program. The second focal element involved articulating a compelling mission and goals developed from the energy and interest of the students. Third, faculty engagement to support the proposed program’s development and effect its approval was also a crucial element.

Transferability of Insights regarding Student Interest

In considering how this experience may transfer to another college or university, among other things it is helpful to consider who are the students with community interests and what do they do to pursue those interests. At DePaul, some took classes about social and community issues in other social science departments like sociology; others were involved with university social action organizations, community settings and social change. Identifying these students and others from psychology courses, then recruiting them into a community psychology class if one exists, or a relevant topical seminar or an independent study if one does not, can be the start of something bigger. Also seeking out talented undergraduate students with community interests to join a community psychology faculty member’s research team, or to take part in a community project, can help build a community of those interested in community psychology. Then members of this community, faculty and students, may take the next step to develop or advance community psychology coursework, community research, and fieldwork sites appropriate to their educational setting.

Building Learning Opportunities in the Community Concentration: Phase Three

Once the Community Concentration was approved, Olya Glantsman and the community psychology faculty began to build learning opportunities for students, the third primary phase to consider in program development. Focal elements for building these learning opportunities included developing the courses for the core curriculum, providing strong mentoring, evolving the electives offered, and using local resources and opportunities.

Developing core courses

Developing core courses meant planning and conducting an advanced course in community psychology and a two-course field experience/internship. Each of these courses was adapted from an existing approved course not offered regularly in order to avoid becoming engaged in the substantial bureaucratic effort associated with establishing a new course in the university catalogue. Also, the existing introductory community psychology course was modified to prepare students for the other core courses in the program.

Students begin the program with the gateway course of Community Psychology. This introductory course has had a long history of being taught in the Psychology Department given faculty interest and engagement in the field. Students are introduced to the basic concepts of the field, such as valuing human diversity, largely through textbooks, lectures, and class exercises. Exams are content-driven to ensure that students are learning and retaining the material. Students are also introduced to empirical research through an annotated bibliography assignment as special emphasis is placed on the value and importance of empirical evidence and grounding all work in research. Students learn to search for, critically analyze, and write about peer-reviewed articles in preparation for the final project, which also includes an activism component. This project is designed to help students make key connections between community psychology theory and research and real-world social issues, such as systemic racism. Working in groups, students present their final projects to their classmates at the end of the term. For example, recently the presentations included issues of domestic violence, reducing anxiety levels on college campuses, childhood literacy, and feminine hygiene among the homeless. Not long ago, the final assignment was slightly adjusted. Students still worked in small groups; however, instead of students picking a topic of interest themselves, each group was matched with a local non-profit agency. In collaboration with the partnering organization, students identified an issue of shared interest, reviewed psychology scholarly empirical evidence related to the issue, and presented the literature review to their partners in class. Students focused on a variety of topics including homelessness among young women, cultural competence among incarcerated youth, service learning in Chicago public middle schools, community advocacy, lack of opportunities for employment and childcare for low-income mothers, housing issues affecting formerly incarcerated individuals, indigenous healing practices, and spirituality and support for cancer patients. Since the beginning of the program, these class projects typically have been centered around low-income communities of color in Chicago.

In addition to the existing introductory community psychology course, 3 courses were adapted for the Community Concentration: an advanced community psychology course (Principles of Field Research and Action) and a two-course internship sequence (Field Work in Community Research and Action I & II). Typically, about 15-20 students are enrolled in each of these three courses, which are offered once a year. Principles of Field Research and Action builds on the introduction to the field as the second course in the core of the community psychology undergraduate program. Students read peer-reviewed articles by a wide range of community psychologists with a focus on the field’s values, history, current theory, research, and practice. Students meet community psychologists from diverse backgrounds including immigrants, people of color, academics and practitioners, and learn about their community psychological work and perspectives through their lectures. Among other topics, the students are introduced to basic program evaluation and consultation skills. This course also seeks to prepare students for their fieldwork and relatedly make them more marketable for whatever they decide to do after they receive their undergraduate degree, whether a job or graduate school. Among other course sessions, this preparation for the future includes a lecture on graduate school application, a visit from graduate students representing both clinical-community and community Ph.D. programs at DePaul, a curriculum vita assignment, and a visit from the Career Center representative focusing on resume writing and the center’s services available to the students before and after graduation.  To further illustrate how the course helps students develop community competencies and thereby become more marketable, we describe one of the assignments in detail from Principles of Field Research and Action, the organizational profile, which assists with these objectives.

Organizational profile. For the organizational profile, each student is required to choose a nonprofit organization or a research project of interest to him/her. This assignment facilitates internship search and selection, which may be at a community agency or in a community psychology research project team. To some extent the assignment parallels the process of searching for graduate schools and jobs. Students are required to visit the community agency/research project and collect information about that community organization or research team. This information may include the relevant mission, substantive emphases, current programs, physical surroundings, ease of access via public transportation, attitudes of staff, and need for interns, and other salient setting specifics. They compose a profile of the site (e.g., what is its organizational chart, where does its funding come from, etc.). Students also conduct an interview (at least 30 minutes) with a member of the community organization or research team. In addition, they describe the social issues addressed by the organization/team (e.g., employment discrimination) and the specific problem/social issue in which they are personally interested in (e.g., reducing unemployment for people of color with invisible disabilities). They reflect on what they liked or did not like about the organization/team and what they learned in the process. This report also explores how, if they were to work with the organization, their experiences would relate to community psychology including what they have learned in class to date. The final aspect of this assignment includes a brief literature search and review on the topic related to the organization/research team they have chosen. The objectives of this assignment are to increase knowledge, to develop rudimentary organizational entry competencies, and to enable students to apply the concepts, methods, and issues discussed in class. Students practice searching the empirical literature and they review and prepare for engaging with their internship site. Further, this process provides experience relevant for selection, preparation, and engagement with a potential graduate program or job.

As noted above, a major emphasis in the second course in the Community Concentration, Principles of Field Research and Action, is to prepare the students for the Field Work sequence typically taken in the senior year as a two-quarter internship. This 22-week course sequence engages students more deeply into community psychology. Each week involves 6-8 hours at the internship and also a class meeting. The class meetings provide students with opportunities to share their experiences with their peers, learn from one another, and discuss substantive issues associated with work in the field of community psychology. They also allow students and the instructor to recognize and, if necessary, address issues that may arise at their individual sites. Building on the organizational profile assignment, students identify, appraise and select an internship site, which helps prepare them for finding future graduate schools and/or work positions. This site selection is made with each student’s career path in mind. As an example, many students have interned at the Center for Community Research at DePaul University, where students have been involved in one of three major projects: (1) stigma reduction research with a chronic illness known as chronic fatigue syndrome and myalgic encephalomyelitis, (2) evaluation of the effects of community building work with recovery homes to help those with substance use disorders of different races and ethnicities re-integrate into the community, and (3) violence prevention programs for youth, especially youth of color, within the Chicago Public Schools. These projects are like most fieldwork in that they typically involve low-income participants of color and/or issues of poverty and race/ethnicity.

This fieldwork sequence enables students to apply their academic learning in a community setting as they engage in hands-on experiences, typically in a setting that is dealing with the consequences of social inequities and is promoting social justice. Students have the opportunity to develop their community research and/or community intervention competencies. Another aim of the two fieldwork courses is to strengthen students’ confidence in their abilities and critical thinking skills to function effectively in a professional setting. Every assignment is designed to make students more perceptive consumers of knowledge and/or help them move closer to their future careers (e.g., interview a community psychologist; attend and assess a Society for Community Research and Action’s council or interest group call). Students also work with their site supervisors in identifying the organization’s/project’s needs and creating a tangible product that fulfills those needs. Some examples of these products may include a volunteer training manual, a program effectiveness survey, a workshop curriculum, or an informational video. The final project for the course includes an individual PowerPoint presentation for the class, which becomes the basis of a poster presented at DePaul’s Annual Psychology Night Conference. One of the goals of the in-class presentation is to help students practice their “elevator speech” about their internship experience in preparation for future graduate school or job interviews.

Extensive Mentoring

In addition to developing core courses, the second focal element of building learning opportunities is extensive mentoring of students in the community psychology program. The director, Olya Glantsman, serves as a mentor to virtually all students in the program. She helps them think through their future goals and develop their skill set so they can achieve them. She writes letters of recommendation and fields phone calls from prospective faculty and employers to help students gain admittance to graduate programs and obtain positions in community and public agencies. Moreover, students may also receive mentoring support from other community psychology faculty in whose research teams they participate, from community psychology doctoral students who supervise their research contributions on these teams, and/or from field supervisors in community internship settings. For example, one student shyly approached a faculty member who supervised her research team about writing a letter of recommendation to a M.A. program to which she planned to apply. The faculty member asked to review her full record and discussed her goals in some depth with her. The faculty member then explained to the student that she had an exemplary undergraduate record not only in her research team but overall. She could apply for doctoral education if she was so inclined. The student then raised her sights, applied to a top community psychology Ph.D. program, and recently obtained her doctoral degree. Given the small footprint of the field of community psychology, mentoring and other assistance is helpful, and in some instances necessary, to obtain maximum benefit from the valuable knowledge and competencies learned. In our experience, mentoring has been very useful for those in the Community Concentration.

Evolution of the Electives

A third focal element of building learning opportunities is the evolution of the elective courses. Since 2006 as the program has developed, the elective courses have been an important area for flexibility and innovation. At the outset four courses were mandated in addition to the core courses, and were elective in name only. Then as students made clear their variety of interests, faculty created a longer list of possible elective courses. Over time, faculty realized the relevance of more psychology courses for students with community psychology interests. Yet the list of electives was still too restrictive to give students the flexibility many needed to pursue their interests. Now we have adopted a more individualized approach; students may choose any four advanced courses offered in the Psychology Department. Faculty increased the flexibility of elective selection to respect each student’s diverse background and future career interests.

In terms of innovation, in 2017-18 the growing interest in understanding trauma led to the creation of two elective courses, the Psychology of Trauma and the Psychology of Disaster and Crisis Intervention, and therewith, a trauma track in the Community Concentration. There was some interest in developing a trauma program for our psychology major, and the community faculty advocated to build a trauma focus as part of our program as a first step.  We are always looking for ways to enhance and grow the program, as well as meet student needs and provide them with skill sets and knowledge that will be useful to them as they engage in jobs or graduate study. As we have become aware of the pervasive influence of trauma on many, especially those at the margins of society, such as people of color, those with disabilities, refugees, different sexual orientations and women, we believe offering a trauma focus and courses as an option in the Community Concentration enhances the learning opportunities for students. For example, it provides substantive background for them to participate in faculty research teams that study trauma in community settings. The instructors of the trauma coursework are aware that many DePaul undergraduates have experienced and/or witnessed traumatic events. In class instructors seek to create a supportive culture in which students are asked to respect one another, to be empathic and to self-disclose appropriately. In the Psychology of Disaster and Crisis Intervention course, for example, class presentations and papers offer students the option of focusing on traumatic events with which they are familiar in their communities, but only if they choose to do so. Those students who have psychological difficulty during the term are encouraged to seek help from professional counselors on campus or elsewhere. Such a track and elective courses help prepare students for trauma-informed positions and graduate study.

Resources and Opportunities Available to All

A fourth focal element that builds learning opportunities for students in the Community Concentration is the resources and opportunities available to all. These resources and opportunities are available to all psychology majors. Some are especially relevant for those in the community program and all may be tailored to advance learning for students in the program. They include but are not limited to the Chicago community settings, the Steans Center for Service Learning, alternative forms of participation on research teams, and research funding. Chicago has a wealth of community settings, both not-for-profit and public agencies, that offer excellent field work experiences in a range of areas. Initially the community program worked with the Steans Center for Service Learning at DePaul, one of the largest service learning centers in American higher education. The Steans Center had working relationships with about 500 settings of all types in the Chicago area at that time and could help students seeking an internship placement. The Steans Center helped students secure their field sites by identifying a subset of organizations that were good internship sites from which students could choose. This approach to seeking internships worked well in the early years. Subsequently, the Community Concentration has seen benefit in students negotiating for their own internship, with support from the instructor for the two Fieldwork courses. Typically, students are more motivated, learn more and develop greater self-confidence when they obtain their own fieldwork sites with adequate support.

Other opportunities to meet the fieldwork requirement involve developing research competencies through participating on a research team. Research experiences can also be completed through taking an independent study course with a community faculty member, doing an honors research project, or volunteering for a research team. Students may write an internal college or departmental student research grant or SCRA mini-grant to work on a research project with a faculty member or doctoral student or be hired as a research assistant on an internal or an external faculty grant. In sum, in the third phase of building learning opportunities, focal elements that promote program development are creating core courses, mentoring students, evolving electives, and taking advantage of other learning opportunities and resources. These elements grow and interact to sustain and strengthen the Community Concentration over time.

Transferability of Insights regarding Coursework Innovation

In terms of transferability, we recognize that adapting courses with modest enrollments may be challenging in some educational settings. We encourage some more general thought toward how to innovate to develop coursework. For example, if courses are difficult to establish or adapt, perhaps community fieldwork could become part of a broader, larger fieldwork course staffed at least in part by a community psychologist.  Moreover, the introductory community psychology course can be a gateway for those looking to pursue applied psychology more generally. Gateway courses for broad programs usually attract significant enrollment. We also encourage the involvement of community psychology graduate students when possible to assist in teaching, mentoring and sharing information about other resources. The main messages regarding evolving electives and drawing on other resources are to stay tuned to relevant emerging student interests and developing fields of knowledge and to take advantage of the local strengths on and off campus.

Accomplishments, Challenges, Strengths and Future Directions


Where are we now more than a decade since launching the Community Concentration? The accomplishments of the community program to date include increasing curricular access and breadth, educating many students and opening up new opportunities.  DePaul has increased its access to community psychology in its undergraduate curriculum both in terms of introducing more students to community psychology and in making programmatic, in-depth study of community psychology available to undergraduate students. In terms of increasing access to community psychology, the introductory course in community psychology had been taught for years prior to the creation of the community program. The frequency of this introductory community psychology course has increased over time, especially since the beginning of the community program. Initially the course was offered only once per year, then twice per year; with the advent of interest leading to the community program it began to be given every quarter. Then it was added during summer session, and now we offer two sections every quarter, one typically online, with about 40 in each section. By integrating this course into a program and having faculty and advanced doctoral students teach it more frequently, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of students who are introduced to the field of community psychology from 30 to over 250 annually.

Similarly, the number of students who have the in-depth experience of the Community Concentration has grown to about 20 annually, an increase from 8 in the first cohort. The program has a decade of graduates that now totals 150. The program seems to be particularly attractive to first-generation and students of color as these students are drawn to the field’s values, including empowerment and its emphasis on working with marginalized populations. Estimates are that between 35% and 50% of each cohort are students of color and/or first-generation college students. The community program has opened opportunities for students to learn research, become acquainted with community agencies and thus be better prepared for graduate education and positions in community and public settings. Many have gone on to top graduate programs in community psychology and related fields. A number now work in the Chicago area or elsewhere in field settings and other community and public agencies.

Some examples of the various programs and schools that the students have entered include master’s programs at University of Chicago, DePaul, and University of Illinois at Chicago.  Students have entered various doctoral programs, including Michigan State University, University of Wisconsin, Adler University, UNC Charlotte, and DePaul.  Some specific examples of the students’ career paths include Development Coordinator in Institutional Giving at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, a Special Education teacher at Chicago Public Schools, Research Associate at the Center on Community Research at DePaul University, and participant in AmeriCorps and in Teach for America programs. 


While DePaul’s Community Concentration has accomplished much, similar to any other undergraduate program, it is not without its challenges. For example, there are annual information campaigns about the program. Community faculty and graduate students recruit promising undergraduates from diverse backgrounds in their classes and research groups. University staff familiar with the program recruit students of color with whom they work as part of intensive programs preparing these promising students for advanced degrees. Nonetheless, many psychology majors, particularly transfer students, may not learn about the community program in time to complete the sequenced requirements during their junior and senior years. Another challenge for students is balancing their varied senior year requirements while completing an internship in the field. In addition, internships can vary in terms of the responsiveness of the organization, the fit between the student and organization, and the quality of the student experience. The many benefits of the program, however, overshadow the challenges. Community program evaluations indicate students reflect positively on their newly acquired skills. These include conceptualizing strategies to address social issues, building collaborative relationships with not-for-profit organizations, evaluating and utilizing research, and understanding how not-for-profits may use consulting and evaluation tools. In addition, students grow professionally in managing time and in finding and securing experiences. All of these talents are helpful to them in seeking relevant positions in community settings and in pursuing advanced degrees in community psychology and related fields.

Taking a step back from the community program to consider the larger context of the university, we see a number of macro-challenges that may affect the program going forward. As a university, DePaul, like other institutions of higher learning, has experienced multiple changes in leadership in recent years, increasing expenses, revenue limitations, and increasing concerns over longer-term trends of fewer college-age individuals in the United States. Consequently, there are pressures for the development of revenue-generating programs. As community psychology faculty are engaged in so many current initiatives that we value, we worry that new revenue generation will be prioritized over sustaining the existing quality of academic programs. Further, as the university develops additional new and innovative programs, we may find ourselves competing internally for majors. Reductions in psychology majors and course credit hours taken may reduce our ability to maintain and grow faculty and important programs. Fortunately, the introduction to community course (n=40 or so) is comparable to or larger in size than other advanced courses in the Psychology Department. However, the advanced community course and the fieldwork sequence (n=15-20), while larger than the current undergraduate enrollment minimum, are smaller than typical undergraduate offerings and may need to be increased in size in the future to be sustainable.  We have discussed a variety of ways to better market our program to increase growth and interest, as there are recommended strategies including building alliances across disciplines, using social media, and increasing visibility in undergraduate textbooks (Jimenez et al., 2016). Jason and colleagues (2018) are currently working on a free undergraduate open-access online community psychology textbook, which will likely generate additional interest in and growth of the field.


Nonetheless, the undergraduate Community Concentration and the doctoral community psychology programs at DePaul more generally have several strengths that will help us address concerns due in part to the valued place we occupy within our university. First, DePaul University is a Vincentian institution and driven by St. Vincent de Paul’s mission. Saint Vincent came from modest beginnings, yet grew his skills at connecting with others to facilitate significant systems-level change. He was instrumental in reforming the Roman Catholic Church and organizing people to serve the poor in France in the 1600s. He went beyond the individual approach to create and sustain structures that served the underserved. His goals, values, and approach were consistent with the values of community psychology. So, the work that we do at DePaul University in community psychology represents a 21st century manifestation of the work of St Vincent himself engaged in with communities. Second, although our undergraduate and our doctoral program in community psychology are relatively new, our clinical community psychology doctoral program has strong beginnings in the 1960s. So, our long history of curricular development, program strengths, and faculty contributions are recognized as valuable and core to the University. Third, our community and clinical community faculty have worked collaboratively and ascended to leadership positions within DePaul and nationally. For example, as department chairs, Chris Keys and Susan McMahon were instrumental in increasing the frequency of offering the introduction to community psychology course. As a senior member of the Depaul community, Leonard Jason has provided wise counsel in each stage of program development. Finally, Olya Glantsman  is a talented program director who has taken on whatever needs to be done and who prizes the success of students. She has been critical to all accomplishments of the program. In recognition of the efforts of DePaul’s faculty in community psychology education at the doctoral and undergraduate levels, the Society for Community Research and Action honored DePaul as the first recipient of the Award for Excellence in Educational Programs.

As we look to the future, we need to be cognizant of new issues as they arise and work collaboratively to enhance our strengths and impact on the department, college, and university, the organizations and communities with which we work, and our field more broadly. For example, we are currently exploring the possibility of developing a combined 3+2 BA-MS degree: Community Psychology through Social Justice.  We hope program development initiatives such as this one will increase the number of students in our Community Concentration, introduce community psychology to a new set of students, and provide a niche program for those interested in efficiently completing a bachelors and masters degree. Modifications and innovations to our various programs over time increase the relevance and accessibility of community psychology. Thereby we can address student interests and prepare them for their next steps in their professional journeys. Our recent hiring of outstanding early career faculty, Megan Greeson, Molly Brown, Annie Saw and Ida Salusky, is building a strong foundation for the future in areas of violence against women, homelessness, Asian immigration and mental health, college students from underrepresented groups and Latin American women and youth.

Future Directions

In closing, we consider the current status of community psychology and a future direction for growth. Although the field of community psychology has maintained steady growth over the past five decades, we remain a relatively small field. Our size puts us at risk of losing ground in academic settings. If we do not have doctoral programs, we will not be able to train the next generation of community psychologists. Community psychologists in academic institutions have a wonderful opportunity to grow the field through creating undergraduate programs, specializations, and majors. Ultimately, the number of talented applicants to community graduate programs and allies in community and public agencies is likely to grow. There is no shortage of jobs for community psychologists, yet most positions that are ideally suited to community psychologists are not advertised as such (McMahon & Wolfe, 2016; Viola & Glantsman, 2017). Undergraduate programs can increase the visibility of our field, both in colleges and universities and in the field at large (Bauer, Glantsman, Hochberg, Turner, & Jason, 2017). Unfortunately, most universities do not have community psychology faculty, staff or courses, so they are missing a major gateway to attract students and grow the field. Those of us with an undergraduate course and/or graduate programs in community psychology would be wise to enhance our focus on undergraduate education, even as those with graduate programs sustain that valuable focus (Jimenez et al., 2016; McMahon et al., 2015). That is, we need a “both-and” approach, rather than an “either-or” approach to program development.

In broad strokes, the approach adopted here may be adapted and tailored to build upon strengths in both undergraduate teaching colleges and in graduate universities. Undergraduate institutions need to consider the attractiveness of community engagement and social justice in their settings and creatively expand the opportunities for learning about community psychology to those with community curiosity. There are many avenues for graduate institutions to consider, taking into account their unique context, history, values, and future directions. The important point to keep in mind is that graduate programs in which community psychology plays a meaningful role likely have relevant resources. These programs typically have the faculty, research opportunities, graduate students and community ties to create rich undergraduate foci in community psychology. In fact, in this era of innovation in higher education, such graduate programs may be some of the settings particularly suited to creating undergraduate programs in community psychology. In parallel, undergraduate institutions of many sorts have community engagement and social justice aspirations and resources that may foster greater opportunities to learn about community psychology.

Today, DePaul is one of the few universities, if perhaps not the only university with both Clinical Community and Community Psychology doctoral programs and an undergraduate program in Community Psychology. We would like to be less distinctive in this regard and eagerly anticipate that faculty in other community psychology graduate programs and in undergraduate institutions will also develop and strengthen opportunities for undergraduate students to learn community psychology. We are proud of this accomplishment and what our program has been able to provide to the greater Chicago metropolitan area and to the Society for Community Research and Action as well as beyond. Yet we are humbled by the knowledge that social inequities, related systemic problems, and their sequelae persist, worsen and cry out for our attention. Students, faculty, and community settings continue to value our undergraduate focus on community psychology at DePaul. We hope others find our description of the primary phases, the accomplishments, the challenges, and the strengths helpful as they consider how to build their emphasis on undergraduate education in community psychology.


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Christopher B. Keys, Olya Glantsman, Susan D. McMahon, and Leonard A. Jason Christopher B. Keys, Olya Glantsman, Susan D. McMahon, and Leonard A. Jason

Chris Key,s began teaching community psychology to undergraduates at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1972. In the mid-70s he helped develop the Applied Psychology Major at UIC with an introduction to community psychology course as the gateway. He is a fellow and past president of SCRA and a recipient of the SCRA Distinguished Contribution to Theory and Research Award. He has presented and discussed innovative ways to teach and develop programs in conferences, colloquia and consultations for five decades.

Olya Glantsman, earned her doctorate in Community Psychology and a graduate certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies from DePaul University in 2013. She is currently the Director/Coordinator of their Undergraduate Concentration in Community Psychology and a Visiting Professor in DePaul’s psychology department.

Susan Dvorak McMahon, is Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development for the College of Science and Health and Professor of Clinical-Community and Community Psychology at DePaul University. Her research focuses on teacher and student experiences with violence, school climate, risk and protective factors at multiple ecological levels, school-based intervention and evaluation, and enhancing our educational systems.

Leonard A. Jason, is currently a Professor of Psychology at DePaul University and the Director of the Center for Community Research. His interests are in public policy, community building, evaluating recovery homes for those with substance use disorders, reducing stigma for those with chronic health conditions (i.e.. chronic fatigue syndrome and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), and preventing violence among urban youth.

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