It's no surprise that psychology students were among those cheering when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently proposed a rule to fund psychology internships under Medicare's Graduate Medical Education (GME) program--a win that could mean as much as $200 million over the first five years for psychology training.

A more surprising fact may be that students played a role in the APA advocacy effort that led to psychology's inclusion in GME.

Student leaders were among the psychologists and APA staff who visited members of Congress, wrote letters and made calls to push for psychology's inclusion in GME.

And not only did they help win the GME battle, the issue ignited interest among them to become more vocal advocates on behalf of the field.

"Students saw how this directly impacted them and got involved," says Carol Williams, associate executive director for the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS). "APA's Practice Directorate provided students with advocacy training and on-going direction so they learned about the process of regulatory/legislative change from start to finish."

Similarly, a growing number of faculty are providing students direction on how to advocate for psychology. Many of them are using their experience in Capitol Hill fellowships or state-level advocacy to teach graduate and undergraduate students how to participate in the legislative process, how psychology research informs public policy and how the field is impacted by legislators' decisions.

Their hope is that the next generation of psychologists will become valuable advocates for psychology. "For the benefit of our profession, and the public, it's in our best interest to educate our students about social change and the power of advocacy," says Heather Bullock, PhD, a former APA Congressional Fellow who teaches her students about poverty and welfare policy at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Psychology in action

To encourage her students to think about advocacy, Bullock invites community speakers to talk to her classes about how public policy plays out on the local level.

"Students get to see psychology in action," says Bullock. "They also see that the questions people are interested in out in the community are some of the same questions that academics study."

She also has students analyze the Welfare Reform Law and examine how the legislation affects low-income families. Such lessons incite their curiosity, she says. "My students become interested in making research relevant to the community and look for ways to get more involved," says Bullock.

Her colleague, Craig Haney, PhD, takes "psychology in action" even further. His graduate and undergraduate classes feature visits to courtrooms and prisons, and "ride-alongs" with police officers. He requires all graduate students to do internships as criminal investigators so they come face-to-face with the realities of the criminal justice system.

"You can't be an effective policy advocate if you've never developed a deep understanding of the actual policy issues you are trying to influence," says Haney. "The more students are trained to ask the right questions, collect and analyze good data and make those connections in forums where policy is made, the better the policy that results."

Across the country, Danny Wedding, PhD, who spent two years on Capitol Hill as an APA Congressional Fellow and a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellow, teaches a course in mental health policy at the School of Social Work at Washington University.

"By the end of the semester, many students are enamored with public policy and find it absolutely fascinating--as I do," says Wedding.

He assigns his students to write to the editor of the local newspaper or to a member of Congress outlining their views on a mental health issue of their choice. And at the end of each semester, he organizes a "mock testimony," where students present on a policy issue as if they were testifying before Congress--an exercise that teaches them how to articulate research findings to policy-makers.

Advocacy in any course

Even faculty who don't teach public policy classes are weaving advocacy into their coursework. Kathi Borden, PhD, of Antioch New England Graduate School, was eager to teach her students about advocacy after completing one of APA's Advocacy Training Workshop.

"If it's important for psychologists, it's important for students too," she says. "And maybe if we get to them when they are students, they can have even more impact."

She asked APA's Public Policy Office to identify topics it needed to prepare position papers for pending federal legislation and assigned her students to do the research. They wrote reports on college campus crime, the effects of rural poverty on development, and the role of psychologists in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Several students took their work a step further, writing letters to legislators to protest Medicare cuts or urging for more funding for combating youth violence.

The class offered students "an excellent reminder that we, as psychologists, have a choice," noted graduate student Maria Gugliemino after the class. "We can either take a back seat or get truly involved in issues we believe in and make a difference by being catalysts for change."

Likewise, David Pittenger, PhD, head of the psychology department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, says he finds endless ways to weave discussions about policy into his undergraduate statistics and research methods class and introductory psychology courses.

"When we talk about child development, I talk about the issue of child care, what psychologists do in terms of child care, cost benefits and then how policy fits in," says Pittenger, another former APA Congressional Fellow in academe.

Psychology faculty are also introducing students to policy issues and advocacy at professional issues seminars. At the University of Florida, Bob Frank, PhD, and Sam Sears, PhD, each teach a three-week section on advocacy and health policy, bringing students up to speed on issues such as health-care access and financing, Graduate Medical Education and health-care reform and encouraging them to participate in the legislative process through APAGS or state advocacy efforts.

"We have a long tradition here of getting students to be interested in policy because the faculty are so involved," says Frank, a former Robert Wood Johnson fellow. "The primary message we try to send is that health policy has implications for their professional interests, regardless of what area of psychology they go into, and they really need to be proactive."

Opportunities ahead

Meanwhile, the National Council of Schools and Programs in Professional Psychology (NCSPP) is developing curriculum recommendations for professional psychology schools to integrate advocacy into the classroom.

According to NCSPP advocacy chair Gilbert Newman, PhD, the recommendations will likely include ideas such as hosting workshops to teach about advocacy, inviting speakers from the community and state legislatures, and designating faculty members who stay up-to-date on policy issues and encourage students to participate in advocacy activities--a role for which Newman provides a good example. An enduring advocate for expanded training opportunities and funding for psychology students, Newman enlisted the help of his students at the Wright Institute in Berkeley when he collaborated with APAGS leaders to organize the two national graduate student rallies--one held in San Francisco in 1999 and the second held in Washington, D.C., last year.

Another long-time psychology advocate, APA Executive Director for Education Cynthia Belar, PhD, wants to do more to help training programs educate students about advocacy and public policy--and to reach students who may not have a faculty member who is active in advocacy in their program.

This year, APA's Education Directorate and the Public Policy Office staff will be looking at how they can take the information offered in APA's advocacy training workshops for psychologists and turn them into a Web-based course geared toward students.

"We are interested in developing curriculum materials that faculty could access easily to help their department incorporate advocacy into their program," says Belar. "Students need to see advocacy as a part of their professional development and then know where to get the information they need to get involved." 

Further Reading

  • Lorion, R.P., Iscoe, I., DeLeon, P.H., & VandenBos, G.R. (Eds.). (1996). Psychology and public policy: Balancing public service and professional need. Washington, D.C.: APA Books.

  • Advancing psychology education and training: A psychologists guide to federal advocacy. APA Public Policy Office, Washington, D.C.

  • Levitt, N.G, & Reich, J.N. (1997). National advocacy for psychology. Professional Issues of Comprehensive Clinical Psychology, Vol. 2, 479­489.