Step into the office of St. Ambrose University Psychology Professor Judy Correa Kaiser, PhD, and you can actually see how closely connected she is to her students.
Thank you cards, postcards, even birthday cards, are taped, tacked, and displayed around her desk and on shelves. There are photos of smiling students, notes from alumni touting their progress in graduate school, an abstract painting created by a class, and cats (yes, cats).
She has a diverse collection of feline figurines, most given to Kaiser by students who discovered her love for cats and wanted to express appreciation for all the professor has given them.
Kaiser knows personally the impact a professor can have. She attended the University of Puerto Rico for three years before leaving to finish her undergraduate degree at Florida State University. The native Puerto Rican did not speak any English, but believed learning a second language would lead to more job opportunities.
"It was incredibly challenging," Kaiser said, adding her psychology professors went out of their way to get to know her and support her goals.
"I was so fortunate to be mentored by people who didn't have to help me, but apparently they saw something, a potential," she said. Her success led to a Master's degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Central Florida, then a Doctor of Clinical Psychology degree from Florida State. She joined the faculty at St. Ambrose in 1995.
Kaiser is committed to supporting and providing students with opportunities to expand their education, confidence and passion for the profession. She served as department chair from 2002-2005; is the advisor of Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology; teaches four courses a semester; and leads a challenging field experience course she designed to mirror an entry-level program.
"There are universities that offer field study to undergraduate psychology students, but usually the students' role is to observe, shadow, and journal about what they've witnessed," she said. "My course is much different. I've made it more experiential: our students are supposed to do."
Students must apply for admission to the course, which requires completing 120 hours of on-site fieldwork. Kaiser picks 10 students each spring and fall semester to participate and places each with an agency based on their interests, goals and potential.
Her students have assisted clients with dementia at CASI; helped North Scott Junior High kids learn social skills and how to deal with anger; worked with adolescents dealing with loss at Hope at the Brick House; aided adults in recovery at the Salvation Army, and more.
Kaiser stresses it is not a typical volunteer gig. Students take on a big and deep commitment.
The work is real, and it can spark insecurities and discomfort, Kaiser said. At some point, everything clicks. "They start finding their voice and realize, ‘Yes, I can do this!'" she said. "It is amazing. I observe them in the placement, and I can see their growth, how much more professional they've become."
"Many of the students are offered jobs with the agencies, and the students who apply to graduate school are able to put themselves on a different level. They can say ‘I've developed and co-facilitated psycho-educational activities for those receiving services at my placement.' They can talk about their experiences and what they have done."
In effect, Kaiser has re-created at St. Ambrose the support she found in her own educational experience.
"This is what my mentors did for me, this level of caring and seeing the potential, and I am able to give the same to my students," she said. "Yes, the facts of psychology and all the textbook learning are important. But you must have a love for the profession, for helping others, and empathy for what other people go through. And that, more than anything, is what I hope my students get."