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Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

Professor Rhonda Lewis uncovers field of community psychology

Photo courtesy of Rhonda Lewis

Rhonda Lewis, a Wichita State alumna, first generation student and psychology professor at WSU, didn’t expect to become a professor at all.

“It wasn’t my original plan. I wanted to be an attorney. I wanted to be Perry Mason,” Lewis said. 

Now, Lewis not only teaches students but actively contributes to the growth of psychology through research and by inspiring students.

I thought maybe I could be a clinical psychologist because I could always solve people’s problems,” Lewis said. “They would come to me and tell me things in secret and they would trust me and things like that. So I thought, ‘Well, okay, I’ll become a clinical psychologist, and I’ll be a professor.’”

Lewis quickly shifted paths when she realized she wanted to be involved in more people’s lives than the role of a clinical psychologist would allow her to be, so she began to explore social psychology. 

I had taken a social psychology class taught by Greg Meissen (a professor at WSU). And he said, ‘Do you want to help a lot of people at one time?’” Lewis said. “A light bulb kind of came over my head.”

“I was like, ‘What field is that that can do that? That can help a lot of people at one time, and it’s more prevention-focused, and it’s more upstream? It’s about social justice, empowerment, that aligns a lot with my values as a person?’ And he said, ‘That field’s community psychology.’ I was just like, ‘I’m in love. Show me where that’s at,’” Lewis said.

Lewis began as an inexperienced first generation student but is now an expert in her field. She is familiar with different aspects of psychological sciences but primarily focuses on community psychology, and shares her knowledge with her students. 

Mckenzie James will be a second year doctoral student this fall and is part of the Behavioral Community Action & Research Team where she studies community psychology under Lewis. James explained that community psychology focuses on the environment around the individual. 

There’s too much work or too much stress on clinical psychology. And so community goes in to do the system change, so that when clinicians help somebody, and they go back into the world, it’s not like, ‘Oh, well, the system is now failing me and I have to keep going back.’ It’s kind of like the bigger change to make sure that people are continuing to change when they go home,” James said. 

Lewis explained that therapy is becoming increasingly important, especially as individuals tackle post-pandemic anxiety and depression, but that environmental impacts  can often be overlooked. 

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to a therapist; you should. But there’s also other environmental factors that can impact your mental health,” Lewis said

As a leader for the Behavioral Community Action & Research Team, Lewis is currently researching the link between substance abuse and religious activity post-COVID. 

“I was very interested in religious behaviors. So church attendance and meditation and how students were feeling, because the research is really clear that those that meditate or pray are less likely to engage in substance use … than those who did not, or could not attend church,” Lewis said. 

Later this month, Lewis and her colleagues have plans to attend The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to give a presentation about the link between the psychological sciences and the “undoing” of diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

“A lot of psychological studies or research has just talked about how marginalized groups, whether that’s LGBTQ, or women, or marginalized populations, are not as smart, can’t do certain things, (and) have more health problems. And we’ve contributed to that, instead of looking at the positive sides of their strengths, we’ve only looked at their deficits,” Lewis said. 

Past research Lewis has been involved in includes studying why there are more students of color in the juvenile justice system. In order to answer this question, they held community listening sessions and spoke directly to young people.

“We found out that youth was saying, ‘Hey, we need safer places to congregate after school. We need skate parks … we need mentors, we need role models,’” Lewis said. “We need more youth input, less adults talking about what to do, and more youth voices included in the decision making about what you need,” Lewis said. 

Including a service learning opportunity for students was very important to Lewis as she developed her classes.

I introduced a service learning component because I want the students to actually get into the community and work with a community-based organization so they can see their skills are being utilized,” Lewis said. 

James explained that Lewis has been an important figure in her doctoral experience so far. 

“She (Lewis) was very helpful, because coming into grad school, it’s very nerve wracking to be like, ‘Okay, now I’m on my own,’” James said. “But she’s very nice to talk to about anything. So that’s nice … (to) have that person to be like, ‘Hey, this is going on right now.’ Other things might be put on the back burner, and she’s like, ‘Alright, we’ll get to it. It’s fine.’”

Lewis found her passion in social psychology and encourages students to consider what brings them fulfillment when choosing their majors and careers rather than focusing on just money. 

“I’m a firm believer you need to wake up every morning and enjoy what you’re doing,” Lewis said.

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About the Contributor
Lydia Steeby
Lydia Steeby, Reporter
Lydia Steeby is a first-year reporter for The Sunflower. She's lived in Wichita her whole life and loves to be outside. A freshman, she is an undecided major exploring different career paths involving writing. Steeby also enjoys reading, playing the trumpet and making art.

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