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Profiles in a DU Pioneer Education

Graduate School of Professional Psychology

Q&A with Dean Shelly  Smith-Acuna, Graduate School of Professional Psychology, part one

Dean Shelly Smith-Acuna, GSPP

DU's Graduate School of Professional Psychology, tucked away in the Ammi Hyde building on the south side of campus, provides real, hands-on experience to its students. We talked with Dean Smith-Acuna to learn more.

Q: Give us a brief overview of your school – a general snapshot of the education you provide to students.

A: The Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP) focuses entirely on graduate education. The school started with offering only a doctorate of psychology in clinical psychology (PsyD) in 1976, and we were accredited by the American Psychological Association in 1979, the third PsyD program in the country to receive accreditation. In addition to the PsyD, we now offer master of arts degrees in forensic psychology, international disaster psychology and our newest program, sport and performance psychology.

GSPP is a small school; we have 273 students and we aim to accept (or enroll) 34 students per year in the PsyD program. We had more than 400 applications for the PsyD program this academic year, which is a reflection of our quality reputation and solid programs.

Q: Tell us about how your programs prepare graduates for applied professional work.

A: We follow the "practitioner scholar" model which means all our programs are practice-based. We emphasize the integration of theory, research and practice; that is our hallmark. All our faculty members currently practice and are really involved in leadership positions nationally. I believe this is part of what makes us so effective.

Each masters program has its own version of a training clinic supervised by faculty, and each requires some kind of community-based field placement. We have partnerships with more than 135 agencies locally, such as Kaiser, Aurora Mental Health, correctional facilities, state agencies and school districts.

Students are required to do a minimum of eight hours of service per week in an external agency in addition to their in-house clinical work for the amount of time they're here. Not only does this build our relationship with the community, but it allows our students to network with local agencies.

Q: GSPP houses a number of clinics open to the community, furthering the University's vision of being a great private university dedicated to the public good. Tell us about the services these clinics provide to the community, and the type of hands-on experience gained by your students.

A: Each of our clinics is supervised by faculty and offers low-cost services to the Denver community.

The Center for Performance Excellence (CPEX) is run by our students in sport and performance psychology and provides services to athletes and others in high-stress positions, including the performing arts and high-risk occupations. Interestingly, our biggest employer for sport and performance psychology graduates is the military. Through our program, these students learn how to function successfully in high-performance situations.

Students in the international disaster psychology program work in the Trauma and Disaster Recovery Clinic (TDRC). TDRC provides in-house services for people in our community recovering from trauma such as accidents, crime, abuse and natural disasters. The international disaster psychology program trains our students to be prepared for trauma and disaster situations both nationally and abroad. All students in this program are required to do an international field placement; students have served in countries such as China, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, India and Ghana, working with refugees and disaster victims. Our students also serve locally; when Colorado was experiencing massive flooding this fall, many of our students worked with survivors during the recovery. It's fun for me to see our students addressing this need, and they do such a good job that they get hired! They're contributing to the community and creating a career pipeline.

The PsyD program has offered the Professional Psychology Clinic since the inception of the program. It serves as a community mental health center and holds about 180 sessions per week. All PsyD students are required to have two cases at any given time. This model prepares our students very well; there is a national shortage of PsyD internships, yet last year we placed 97 percent of our graduates!

Some of our PsyD students also work in the New Start Clinic, which serves clients with chronic, persistent mental illness. This is an underserved population, and often these clients don't get adequate services unless they are in crisis. We use a recovery model for clients who can benefit from outpatient treatment. Right now the clinic has 18 clients.

Finally, the forensic psychology program is launching Denver FIRST (Forensic Institute for Research, Service and Training) this summer. We will offer a broad range of assessment, intervention, program evaluation, and consultation services. We already have contracts with the city and county of Denver to work with "frequent users," repeatedly incarcerated people who have mental health problems. We will provide assessment services and advise on how to target interventions. I'm feeling really good about starting this program; we have some amazing faculty who are really energized to do this type of integrated training.

By Katie Watt

Posted May 6, 2014


Q: How does GSPP differ from some of the other graduate programs at competing universities?

A: Our number of training clinics and opportunities to work across specialties is not available at many similar universities, and the combination of in-house and community training is unusual nationally.

Additionally, we have a strong focus on multicultural training, which allows our students to do well in the community. We realize that professionals have to be good at multicultural relationships or we won't be effective. Our curriculum and faculty are incredibly committed to addressing multicultural issues, and to make it fun twice a year our faculty and students do comedy sketches about microaggressions. It's a creative way to approach the issues we face and it stirs people up, but the group has a motto: "if you can't laugh at yourself, we'll do it for you."

Another point of differentiation is our level of service to the community. We're a Medicaid provider, and we're working on how to get more Medicaid funding, as well as seeking other funding options for underserved populations. This allows our students to understand the business piece of providing psychology services.

Our programs are very responsive to current societal needs, and our faculty members are good at seeing and making connections. For example, in the fall we'll be launching specialty training in bilingual psychology.

Q: How do you describe the value of collaborating and offering cross-disciplinary programs with other schools and University departments?

A: There's a little bit of collaboration happening now, and we're striving for more. We're one of the members of the Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing Families, together with the Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) and Sturm College of Law. We also work with GSSW in their Institute for Human-Animal Connection and we do some cross-programming in terms of continuing education.

There are three different psychology programs at DU. The Morgridge College of Education has a school and counseling psychology program, and the Department of Psychology in the Divisions of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences offers four doctorate degree programs. These programs focus more on traditional research, while our model at GSPP is more applied and focuses on workforce development. There is some overlap; sometimes we'll send cases to each other, and students can take classes across programs.

Q: What do you want people to know about GSPP?

A: We're trying to do more continuing education and professional development. We take lifelong education seriously, and regularly invite our alumni back for educational opportunities. We want to be a hub for professionals coming through Denver to have speaking engagements here.

We also continually build community partnerships. We host an annual traumatic brain injury conference with Craig Hospital and rehab organizations around Denver – it's been fun and interesting to see all these people come together and talk about cutting-edge research and practice trends. We're hoping to do more of this and really put ourselves on the map.

Additionally, we have our own pre-doctoral psychology internship consortium, which is one of only five accredited consortia in the U.S. We partner with local agencies to provide training for interns out in the community. Local agencies don't always have the infrastructure to provide administrative support for internship programs, and we're able to provide that support. Known as the "Denver model," our internship consortium has received national awards for innovative practice in graduate education in psychology.

Finally, all our counseling and consultation services are available to the Denver community, including DU faculty and staff. We have a discreet location on campus and maintain complete confidentiality. We accommodate individual adults, children, adolescents, couples, families and groups. Visit us online to learn more or schedule an appointment.

By Katie Watt

Posted May 13, 2014