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Kevin Walters headshot on Colorado mountains

Alumni Spotlight: Kevin Walters

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Our center stands on three pillars: Research, Education, and Practice. One of the many ways we work to protect workers is through educating and training future leaders in occupational safety and health (OSH). We support trainees in OSH disciplines across six programs through the Mountain & Plains Education and Research Center (MAP ERC).

As part of our Alumni Spotlight series highlighting our graduated trainees, we interviewed Kevin Walters, PhD, an occupational health psychology graduate teaching as an assistant professor of psychology at Fort Lewis College. 

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What piqued your interest in studying occupational health psychology?

Like many in psychology, I originally wanted to be a clinical or counseling psychologist. Once I realized that I “take work home” with me and would probably spend most evenings weeping into tissues and staring blankly at walls, I shifted to industrial-organizational psychology but wanted to maintain that focus on optimizing health and well-being. 

What attracted you to the MAP ERC program?

My undergraduate mentor Dr. Tori Howes (now at Oregon State University-Cascades) knew about my interests and recommended that I look into the field of occupational health psychology and, more specifically, the MAP ERC training program. A couple of google searches later and I knew I had to apply! 

What lessons did you learn by working with classmates outside of your program field in the MAP ERC?

Maybe this is low-hanging fruit, but the experience of talking to people in different fields and occupations – all of us with our different “jargon” – is just so invaluable. It really taught me the importance of translating complex topics into simple language. And, even more so, that multidisciplinary work can have such a greater impact than solo ventures – sort of a “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” kind of thing.

What is your current role/how does it apply to your training or field of study in OSH?

I guess the answer depends on when this is published! I’m currently (April 2022) an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO, but recently accepted a position as an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks that begins in August 2022. In either job my focus is on teaching undergraduates, mentoring students’ research, and empowering them to apply psychology to improve health and well-being in their communities. This work directly builds on the training that the MAP ERC provided me, so it feels like I’m “paying it forward” in a way.

Were there major differences between what you thought your job would be compared to your current role/career path?

I feel like I could write a whole essay about this, but the short answer is 100% yes. As a grad student, I remember being taught to say that I was an industrial-organizational psychology student first and an occupational health psychology trainee second. Now it’s even more confusing, because my current work and career trajectory overlaps with community psychology – and I didn’t even know what that term meant a few years ago! My MAP ERC training taught me how to address health, safety, and well-being within organizations, but now I recognize the community as a system and aim to disentangle applied psychology to be more multicultural.

For example, through experiences working with many Native American and Alaska Native students, I’ve learned how dominant Western psychology perspectives (that emphasize independence and hierarchies) have much to learn from Indigenous worldviews (that often emphasize interdependence and heterarchies).

How has your training impacted the way you approach OSH?

As a trainee, I learned the importance of avoiding a “one size fits all” approach to problem-solving and wellness; in other words, just because something works for one individual or organization, that doesn’t mean it will work elsewhere. That lesson provided the scaffolding for more learning on my present job – that when we take solutions from the dominant group and apply them to non-dominant groups’ issues, we can unknowingly reinforce oppressive systems. Therefore, our job ultimately is not to “save” people, but instead to help them help themselves.

How has your current position impacted the larger body of workers, families, and communities?

I’m still early in my career, but my goal is to empower and uplift others to apply psychology to improve their own lives and communities. I view my role as providing expertise on the process of developing and evaluating interventions, and students’ role as providing expertise on their own cultures and communities. For example, I’m currently mentoring a Diné (Navajo) student who is developing a multicultural training program for advocates of survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, because current practices are predominantly Eurocentric and don’t even consider Indigenous worldviews.

I also still author research that has direct and indirect impacts – such as current work at FLC to assess community attitudes towards Land Acknowledgement Statements and other DEI initiatives, and other recent projects about National Park Service employees’ work experiences and about cannabis use among pregnant women.

What advice would you give future OSH trainees?

Know that there is some unforeseeable gap between what you’re learning now and how you’ll apply it in the future – the world is changing fast, and our systems are far from perfect, so it’s your job to be open-minded, adaptive, and active. Also, remember to be compassionate towards others and yourselves. We’re all human beings!

Anything we missed?

While I have this platform – to quote Luvvie Ajayi Jones’ TED talk, if we’re going to make lasting change, we need to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” For example, here’s a document about white supremacy culture in organizations that recently gave me pause for reflection.