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A Dean’s Perspective with Dr. Vicki Sheafer, Dean of the School of Psychology & Counseling

Edited by Kate Day

If technology asks us to explore what it means to be human, period, then the social sciences ask us to explore what it means to be human in action: in community. To examine the specific angles of human behavior relating to how people interact with each other and develop as a culture and influence the world. To analyze what we leave behind. As Christians in community, the conversation deepens further. How do we model biblical interactions in our individual and overlapping slices of society? How do we leave our circles, culture, and community better than when we first showed up in them? How do we engage in relationship with another and show up well? How do we show up well for ourselves?

This conversation, one alive and well at LeTourneau University, is particularly present in a section of Longview Hall that over the years has served many different offices and student populations. Today, it’s a hub of healing and cross-disciplinary research. Walk into the dean’s office of the Psychology and Counseling suite, and do two things:

First, listen. You’ll hear a familiar voice who, for the past 29 years, has not only taught hundreds of classes revolving around human behavior and interaction, but also enthusiastically lives and breathes doing it well—in some expected ways, and in some surprising ones.

Second, look up. There are hundreds of photos on a wall-spanning archipelago of bulletin boards. No cork can be spotted; only snapshot after snapshot of students in caps and gowns, interlocked in triumphant, relieved duos and trios after walking the stage, celebrating what was and what’s next—in community. The common denominator in most of these scenes is the face that goes with the voice: Dr. Vicki Sheafer, Dean of the School of Psychology and Counseling, and Professor of Psychology.

We sat down to discuss these roles and found many more behind her formal job titles. Along the way we explored what it means to her to give back to the community that poured into her, how she views athletics as a level-up on the college community experience, and how psychology and counseling pair as a well-balanced marriage of true STEM education and the foundational human care that’s required for any community to truly function.

sheafer-now.jpgLooking Back and Giving Back

Something hit me at this year’s annual back-to-school faculty and staff gathering. Every year, we play that game where everyone stands up to be recognized for varying lengths of service. At the beginning, all faculty are standing, and then progressively sit as years of tenure are announced. After a few minutes, you’ve got the faculty with 5 years still standing, then 10, then 15… and as the number of years increases, the number of people standing starts dwindling. And then President Mason gets to 25 years. Nearly everybody sat down, and there were only a handful of us standing. I’m looking around, and then it hit me that I was one of so few standing—and out of the few, the only woman standing. Immediately I was flooded with all of these memories of when I first came to LeTourneau.

I started in August of 1994, and I was the fifth female faculty person on campus. I came straight out of grad school. I was 25. I’d just received my Ph.D. and wanted to be a teacher but didn’t really know how to do that. Because the university had just started psychology the year before I came, I was put in charge as program coordinator. My initial reaction of ‘In charge of what!? I don’t even know what I’m doing!’ softened into ‘Okay, Lord. See me through.’ One of the ways in which He did that was through a handful of female mentors who I’m grateful for to this day.

All four of those ladies were experienced and really took me under their wing and helped me so much: Lois Knouse, a math professor; MaryAnn Otwell, the women’s basketball coach; Joy Dennis, an English professor; and Sharon Feester, who was in charge of Education at that point. We formed this group, and Lois named it. She called it FEW: Faculty Exceptional Women. At least once a month for the first couple of years, they’d take me out, we’d go to their houses, and discuss my questions about university life, about teaching well and engaging well. It was nice because they’d all either been at LeTourneau for a while or had just been in education for a while. So, they helped me learn the ropes, and also successfully navigate what it’s like to be a female professor in a male dominated industry. It was an enriching community. We made it up, and it made a difference.

As I’m standing there thinking, ‘wow, there’s only a few of us left… when did I get old?’ Then secondly, ‘I’m the only woman here. Wait a minute, I’m now Lois. I’m now MaryAnn. I need to do something.’ I don’t know why it hadn’t struck me before, but it really struck me. So, I started it back up again—I brought back FEW with our now 25 female faculty members. I had this urge; I have got to do something. The Lord has brought this back to my memory for a reason. In the last few years, we’ve hired a number of young female faculty members, and they need somebody. Not that there’s anything great about me. But those women did that for me, and it’s my turn to do that for the next generation.

We’ve gathered, we’ve talked, we’ve engaged, and we’ve gotten to know one another as colleagues, friends, and in mentor relationships. We sit together in chapel and break bread together. It’s a way to give back. Because at this point, I’m closer to the end of my career than to the beginning. I don’t know exactly when that’s going to be. That’s for the Lord to decide. So, what else do I need to be doing? It just hit me. FEW. ‘You are that person now, and you need to do that.’ The response has just been overwhelming. The Lord has reminded me how I benefited from that mentoring, and now it’s my turn to be that mentor.

It was really a full circle moment for me in some ways. I think the Lord is saying, ‘what are you going to make the remaining years about?’ Obviously, I’m going to continue to do the work of the School of Psychology & Counseling, but I kept feeling like there was something else that the Lord was bringing back to my mind that He wants me to do. Hopefully I can be of some encouragement and some help, because one day they’ll be some of the last ones standing.

Moonlighting as an Assistant Coach

My first my first tie-in with athletics at LeTourneau was through MaryAnn Otwell, who had started the women’s basketball team in January of 1994 and started recruiting shortly before I arrived. I had played basketball in college, and I met her during my interviews. I wanted to get involved, and MaryAnn needed an assistant coach, so I stepped in. When I was in grad school I coached at a high school, so I had a little bit of coaching experience; never as a head coach or anything. I was in charge of JV at the high school and had a great time doing it. So, I thought, ‘why not’?

That first year on the first basketball team, we had eight girls. As you know, you can’t even scrimmage with eight players. So, the team manager and I rounded us out to ten. That’s why there’s the occasional misconception that I was a student-athlete at LeTourneau: if you go back to that first year there are pictures of me playing in uniform!

I continued as the assistant basketball coach the first seven years I was here. Then, the very first year they started softball, I was the assistant softball coach because they didn’t have one and I thought ‘sure, I’ll do that too.’ Again, ‘why not’? I traveled with the teams, drove the van… the whole thing. We’d get back at 4 o’clock in the morning and I’d have class at 8:30 a.m. I kept it up for seven years, still practicing almost every day (which was incredible for keeping me in shape!). I hung up my hat from coaching when Coach Otwell retired, and that was that for me and athletics. Until it wasn’t.

Serving as Faculty Athletic Representative

Every NCAA school has a Faculty Athletic Representative (FAR) that is appointed by the president to be the liaison between the faculty and the athletic administration and the conference. I was thrilled when the president asked me to step back into the athletics world in this role five years ago. I was eager to get back in it, officially.

FAR responsibilities include signing off on eligibility, along with head coach, registrar, and AD, to verify GPA and number of credit hours to assure athletes are in good academic standing. Then, once a semester, we travel to conference meetings to cover conference policies, NCAA policies, etc. This fall marks our first in-person meeting since COVID, navigating the implications of which was a huge journey in and of itself in college athletics!

Dr. Tim Sceggel, our new athletic director, is doing a great job, and he’s going to do a great job. He’s got so many great ideas; he’s brought in some amazing coaches already. I’m so excited the energy he’s brought and the things we’re going to be doing. LeTourneau Athletics was already fantastic, but we are truly leveling up.

The Value of the Student Athlete Experience

In college, I went to what I call a ‘church’ school. It wasn’t a Christian school. It was a ‘church school.’ It wasn’t a secular school; but it’s not LeTourneau. It was kind of halfway in between. I played both basketball and softball, so I learned a tremendous amount outside the classroom, as well as in it.

Sports teaches you so many valuable lessons. You can learn so many life lessons by being part of a team: leadership, teamwork, working with people who are different than you, being able to put aside your differences off the court when you’re on the court… it’s such good training. Now that I’ve experienced this, oh what I would have given to be a student athlete at a place like LeTourneau. Because when you put the Christian mentorship on top of that, it’s unbelievable.

I thought I had a really good experience as a college athlete, but then I came here and was helping to coach and helping mentor and spiritually develop beyond all those other life lessons that are really important. When you add the spiritual development piece to that, the Christian discipleship piece to that, the experience is extraordinary. The possibilities are so rich. And that’s one thing I love about Dr. Sceggel’s emphasis on discipleship—we’re enriching that even further.

Again, every part of LeTourneau is about the spiritual formation. Athletics was doing that before, but it’s going to a new level, and I’m really excited about the intentionality with which he’s working with the coaches to institute these new core values.

Our athletes work hard—all of our students work hard—but then you add the requirements and the time of practice and workouts on top of that. Again, time management is a life skill. For the most part, our athletes really get it. And when you see their grade point average is usually a tad bit higher, which is impressive given all that they’re doing, it’s a testament to the coaches and the administration in terms of making sure that the student part is emphasized more than the athlete part, even though we’re not sacrificing the athletic part.

Team as the Ultimate Community

In Division III sports, the goal isn’t to go pro. That’s not why student-athletes come here. But there is a richness that the student-athlete part of the college experience adds, especially given the fact that in almost every case, it’s their last opportunity to play on a team.

That’s how it was in my case. I knew I wasn’t ever good enough to be professional, so I had four more years and wanted to make the most of that. I think that’s what most of our student athletes are excited about: ‘I have four more years to compete as part of a team.’ Maybe they’re in a recreational league or something in their community one day, but it’s not the same thing. So, it’s really the last season of their lives that they can reap the benefits of being a part of a team in this way, and fully take advantage of that—to build those bonds.

To see the championship baseball team come back in October at Homecoming and see those bonds still so alive and strong, you can see how much that brotherhood still means to them. Those lifelong connections—the fact that your teammates will always be your teammates—that adds another layer to the community here. LeTourneau has a strong community for all of our students, but when you put the extra layer of community as teammates on top of that, it makes it a really special experience.

Psychology as STEM

As we lean into embracing The Christian Polytechnic identity, I began doing some reading after always wondering why psychology wasn’t considered STEM or a science—I never understood that—and I’ve come across some things recently regarding the classification of our psychology program. Our program is currently classified as a general psychology program through the State of Texas. However, given the way we approach psychology education at The Christian Polytechnic University, we fully qualify to be classified as a research and experimental psychology program, one that is considered STEM by the NSF and all the other government agencies. So, in order to fully leverage and own our STEM-approach to psychology, we are formally reclassifying our program. In fact, we already meet all of the criteria: we are heavy on the research methods and statistics and have students actively engaging in their own original research, which is also incorporated into many of our other classes.

That’s the hands-on part of psychology: doing original research, data analysis training, and research methods training; engaging in opportunities to work on research with professors; and attending research conferences in which they present their findings. I took a group of students in April to the Southwestern Psychological Conference. It was the biggest group I’ve ever taken, and I’m hopeful we’ll have another big group including four to five students presenting again this year.

All of these things can get lost when you’re only classifying the program as general psychology. In the future, when students and faculty members engage in research, we can now apply for NSF and other agency grants to help fund it that general psychology programs are ineligible for.

This is right in line with our university strategic plan, our identification with Christian Polytechnic education, and how we’re working to more deeply tie psychology into that story. Dr. Mason’s charge to faculty is to consider ‘how do you see yourself in connection with The Christian Polytechnic identity?’, and for psychology it is abundantly clear. This is what we do, this is who we are, and it fits right in with the heritage of hands-on, vocational, STEM-focused research and work that moves the Kingdom forward and enriches the lives of our students. I’m excited for our undergraduates. It strengthens what we’re already doing and helps to put a new emphasis on that. It’s further providing opportunities to prepare students for grad school.

Priceless Psych Prep

Psychology is an incredible preparatory degree, just like business, for so many different things. You have the interpersonal, the intrapersonal, the written and oral communication skills—that’s of course what we’re emphasizing—the teamwork skills, which is what employers want. So, we’re putting more team project opportunities into our courses as well.

We want to have those skills developed in our psych majors, so whether they go into something specifically psychology or not, they’re prepared. Most of them won’t have psychology in their job title, because there aren’t a whole lot of jobs that have that label. But you find psychology majors everywhere, just like you find business majors everywhere. It’s a stereotypical reaction to wonder whether a student will actually use their psychology degree. But how can you not use your psychology degree? Are you breathing? You’re using your psychology degree. You sometimes hear ‘you can’t get a job with a psychology degree.’ You can get endless jobs. The problem is narrowing it down; not finding a job. So, it’s important to help our students and their families expand their awareness.

Psychology and business are the top two majors in America. Over 100,000 psychology degrees are granted in this country every year. Those graduates going somewhere. They’re doing something, or there wouldn’t be that many, always. The thing is, it’s just not labeled as ‘psychology.’ But the jobs are there. And the preparatory skills that psychology majors have are what employers want. You see all the time ‘the top 10 skills employers are looking for’ and every single one of them students learn in psychology.

It can be scary, since it’s not narrow, but it’s exciting, too. It’s so exciting to see how God can use each student in wonderfully different ways, whether they go right into the workforce or grad school—and not just psychology programs, but med school, law school, physical therapy, occupational therapy, all kinds of social sciences, higher education, student affairs, business… so many areas that it can be challenging to provide a succinct answer to the question of what a psych major can do.

It’s awesome, but it does make it hard to put it into a soundbite. Take a mechanical engineer, for example. You can give a succinct description of what that individual will be doing in their career. It’s a little more difficult for business, psychology, any of the fields that are considered more preparatory in nature. But the way that the Lord uses students in their callings fueled by psychology degrees is incredible.

Cross-Disciplinary Exploration of ‘The Human Factor’

Psychology can also inform so many other disciplines and collaborate in some compelling cross-disciplinary research. Anything we can do to strengthen those ties is worthwhile; it’s so natural. I love to see how the School of Business is integrating entrepreneurial conversations with our engineering students, and the triad of business, engineering, and psychology is a very organic one. If engineers are going to be highly effective businesspeople, they’re going to need to know some psychology. It really cuts across all disciplines. Psychology in certain circles is referred to as a ‘hub science’ because of this. You can’t think of a discipline that psychology isn’t related to. I’ve participated in research projects over the years with numerous engineering faculty, aviation faculty… it’s the human factor in mechanics, in flying. The human factor is everywhere, in every discipline.

Counseling v. Psychology

People often ask me about the differences between these two disciplines. They are truly two distinct things. In fact, the vast majority of psychologists are not counselors. About a third are counselors, which means two thirds are doing something else. The psychology conversation can be subsumed in our culture, because that’s what we know—we know about counseling. It’s more visible. And of course, over the last few years mental health has become even more front and center for very good reasons, and it will continue to do so.

As Christians we understand that the world will continue to deteriorate and that there will be continued call for mental health professionals. And so, the pendulum may get to a place where counselors and psychologists are more even in numbers; but for now, programs are more predominantly producing psychologists—and I think most people would be very surprised by that.

I’m not a counselor; I’m a social psychologist. But I love counseling. I’ve personally, in my own life, benefitted from counseling. I’m so supportive of counseling and grateful we have a strong counseling program. About half of our on-campus majors are psychology; the other half are counseling. We offer a program that honors them both. It gives both groups the foundation they need to go on to the work world. If you’re in a counseling program, you’ll of course need to head to grad school, because you can’t become a licensed counselor without a master’s degree. But at the undergrad level, they are getting the preparation they need to get into a top tier graduate counseling program and continue their education.

The vast majority of our students do go to graduate school in something, though not all of them. So beyond assuring our curriculum prepares them for graduate school, we also want to make sure our curriculum prepares them for the work world. It’s always a balancing act between thinking about preparation for both, and we’ve tried to maintain that balance in our programs. It really is designed to serve our communities and the world, as ministers of the gospel, and whether you’re a psychologist or a counselor, you want to have as many open doors as possible.

Counseling and Self-Care

I’ve learned a lot about counseling over the years, both on the professional level and having gone through it myself. You can appreciate it on a whole different level when you’ve actually been through it. We tend to advise all of our students to go through counseling at some point. I tell students who are training to be counselors, ‘if you’re not willing to go to counseling, why would I buy what you’re selling?’ It’s valuable to be on the other side of that, to have empathy, compassion, and understanding of how nerve-wracking and difficult that is.

In counseling situations, you are dealing with people at their worst. People who are doing great don’t come to see a counselor. You are dealing with people in crisis situations who desperately need help. If you’re not willing to humble yourself, you’re not going to be a very good counselor. You’ve got to have both sides of the equation. I

love the phrase ‘wounded healer’ as applied to counselors. Counselors are human. They also have a life! And stuff’s happening in their life. It’s vital they are willing to go to counseling themselves. It’s like doctors and other medical health professionals, who can notoriously under-prioritize taking care of themselves physically. It’s easy for counselors to neglect self-care.

We all, not just counselors, must get to that point where we realize we need to step back and take care of things in our own lives if we want to be effectively present for and of service to other people. No counselor is perfect. We’re all human. We all need a set of mental health tools to help take care of ourselves.

Self-Care as Biblical Self-Love

As Christians, we sometimes hear ‘self-care’, and instead hear ‘selfish.’ It’s not the same thing. I always try to talk to students about self-love. When you love your neighbor as you love yourself, what are the two elements of that? First, yes, love your neighbor, but what’s the rest of that sentence? What does it mean to love yourself? If you’re falling apart, can you love your neighbor well?

Being selfish is wrong, yes, I’ll grant you that. But taking care of yourself so that you’re at your best, so that you can love your neighbor, is critical. It’s ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ You’re doing both. It’s not an ‘either, or.’ It’s a ‘both, and.’ A ‘both at the same time.’

If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you won’t be effective for your clients, your spouse, your children, or your community. We’ve got to get past believing it’s selfish to be at your best and instead adopt the truth that ‘if I’m at my best, I can be my best helper.’ When things seem to be going okay, we can neglect all of that stuff. It’s only when something crumbles that we realize we weren’t taking loving care. And taking loving care also involves engaging lovely in community.

Dr. Sheafer earned her Ph.D. and Master of Arts in Social Psychology from Miami University and undergraduate degree in Psychology and Sociology from Union College. She has served at LeTourneau University since 1994. While she no longer appears to play on the LETU women’s basketball team, you can find her cheering on a variety of YellowJacket sports during the year and working to foster the human-to-human connections that make an eternal difference.