UO’s new online psychology program makes studying portable

While Charleen Justice was in Iceland last January meeting with government leaders to discuss mental health treatment for people with post-traumatic stress syndrome, she was also working on a master’s degree in psychology back home.  

She was able to do both as part of the first class in the University of Oregon’s new online psychology master’s degree program, which she completed in March. The program gives students the flexibility to complete an advanced degree on their own terms.

“I’m on this eight-hour (time) difference, and I could still do my work,” Justice said about traveling while also finishing the online program. “There’s no way I could do it if it wasn’t online.”   

Jointly run by the UO’s College of Arts and Sciences and UO Online, the Online Master’s in Psychology Program allows its students to apply academics to practical settings while offering a flexible schedule. The priority application deadline for the next six-term program is Monday, May 15, for students entering in fall term.  

“The whole goal of the program is to take what we know from neuroscience and psychological research and translate that into something that’s usable for people to help support behavior change and to help promote resilience in communities,” said Anne Mannering, program director and lecturer.  

When the program was created, Mannering said the idea was to put the knowledge and skills that UO researchers are developing into a practical setting, such as child welfare, education and behavioral health. 

“Another goal is to help people evaluate whether what they’re doing is effective and if there are some changes that need to be made,” Mannering said. “It’s about bridging the worlds of research and practice so communities benefit.” 

Amber Levy, another recent graduate of the program, wanted a program that could not only fit her schedule of being a full-time employee, volunteer and parent but also her goal of helping people.

The online master’s program offered coursework that Levy said can help her volunteer work with the military-related, peer-based emotional support group Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, in honor of her late husband, U.S. Army Specialist Jason G. Levy, as well as in recovery organizations. For example, the course sequence of neuroscience for childhood, adolescence and adulthood helps her explain the importance of mindfulness and meditation. 

“The more you use mindfulness and meditation practices, it increases the folds in your brain, the more interconnectivity and the better it functions,” Levy said. “Framing it in the lens of how it impacts your brain, as well as an exercise, has been more meaningful and encouraging than just saying it’s a self-care technique.”

The program isn’t just for working professionals. It provides students interested in pursuing a doctorate with an opportunity to get more academic experience, Mannering said. 

The program is intended to be flexible and affordable for students. Mannering said the online master’s has a lower tuition than in-person programs and the same price tag for all students, whether they live in Oregon, out of state or abroad. And required readings do not come from textbooks; rather, they’re accessible online for free. 

Lectures are prerecorded during the term, not beforehand, and some courses include guest talks from experts and practitioners. Students work on a capstone project throughout the master’s program. They might conduct community needs assessments for an organization, write grants for programs, or explore research questions connected to mental health.  

Justice’s capstone project was a program evaluation of the Enneagram Prison Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to inspire transformation by sharing the Enneagram personality system with adults in custody. But Justice’s final term project for her implementation science course was a guide for the government of Iceland on how to bring treatment using the drug ecstasy, also known as MDMA, for people affected by the prison system. 

“I’m continuing to work with them and explore the implementation of this potential new treatment for PTSD while utilizing the skills I learned throughout my degree,” she said, “especially the importance of integrating trauma-informed practices and principles and involving the community they are seeking to serve.”

Levy developed a needs assessment for the online recovery community Recovery Elevator. She developed and sent out an online community survey to members to gauge demographics and their pathways to addiction and recovery.

What she found was that the group most vulnerable to relapse were individuals in the zero- to 30-day sobriety range. She suggested in her capstone presentation, attended by the organization’s leadership, that that demographic needed more resources and support.   

“It wasn’t just something I was doing to get a degree; it has actual, real-world impacts,” Levy said. “To feel that I’ve had some impact on helping others, the degree is very, very fulfilling.”   

—By Henry Houston, College of Arts and Sciences