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Washington and Lee University

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Alumni Bring Expertise to Psychology Course

News Contact:
Sarah Tschiggfrie
News Director
stschiggfrie@wlu.edu
540-458-8235

Psychology majors' angst about their future careers had been apparent for some time, said David G. Elmes, emeritus professor of psychology at W&L. "Some had even been told that there is little they could do with a psychology degree," he added.

Elmes knew that wasn't true but that students simply didn't know all the options available to them.

This was obvious based on not only graduating senior exit interviews, but also as the result of very positive student response to a Class of '63 Scholars-in-Residence Program that brought psychology alumni back to campus to talk to students about their own careers.

So Elmes decided to craft a new course, Applications of Psychology Sciences, based on the old theory of showing and telling. He recruited an all-star teaching panel comprising 11 W&L alumni and alumnae with graduate degrees in psychology and allied fields. The response he received to his recruiting pitch was unexpectedly enthusiastic. "A healthy dose of alumni wisdom was on its way," said Elmes.

"When selecting the alumni to teach this course I tried to select people who didn't have an "a-to-b-to-c" career path, although I have included some of those," he said." I wanted people who engage in psychologically relevant activities in different careers, and who do not have teaching as their primary activity."

The alumni discuss not only what they do, but how they got there and the role of both happenstance and W&L in their careers. They delve into what is fascinating in their chosen path, what is mundane, the challenges and, if they had to do it all over again, what they would do differently.

As one student said, "It's like getting a mini-course in a bunch of different graduate fields--all straight from the horse's mouth."

The course features 11 guest instructors, one per week, and the list of careers covered is extensive. One alumnus developed a Web site called Bigsight, which Elmes described as "a sort of Facebook for serious people." Other careers include the NASA space program, Marriott International, investment banking, academia, forensic psychology, veterans' affairs, industrial/organizational psychology and life-span developmental psychology. And then there was the alumna who works in the organ transplant field.

Alumni don't just instruct. They play a major role in determining the appropriate readings and the specific coverage of their part in the course. They also work with W&L's Career Services Office, meeting with students from other disciplines, both in groups and individually. "These candid one-on-one conversations are significant for our students," said Beverly Lorig, director of career services. Elmes added that he was grateful to alumni for their time.

He also made it clear that this was definitely an academic course.

Students must complete a term project focusing on a critical examination of an application of psychological science that had not been considered in depth by the visiting alumni. Examples include the treatment of autism, the development of leadership and the use of animals in advertising, in war, or as companions for the disabled and blind.

As Elmes pointed out to his students, there are many options for them out there.