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One on one... with Jacqueline Akhurst

Principal Lecturer at York St John University

20 July 2013

One inspiration
From early on, Urie Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) writings about ecological systems theory were of fundamental importance to me. These ideas immediately resonated with my experiences of working as a schoolteacher with learners who experienced difficulties, and the model became very important as a tool for teaching psychology in post-apartheid South Africa.

One moment that changed the course of your career
When, as a secondary school geography teacher, the head teacher asked me to take on the role of school counsellor (at the time I was completing my honours in psychology and studying a module in counselling psychology by correspondence).

One important application of community psychology
There are some very good examples of community psychologists working with marginalised youth and immigrants in London and East Anglia. Following the principles of community psychology enables connections to be made with these groups of people, who would not often seek assistance or gain access to traditional psychological services.

One book that you think all psychologists should read
I think the 1978 translation of Lev Vygotsky’s Mind in Society is of vital importance, because of its emphasis on the interaction between cultural/historical influences and individuals. We are immersed in rich language and social interactions from birth, and I believe these are fundamental to our development.

One challenge you think community psychology faces  
We established the BPS Community Psychology Section in 2010, just as the financial crunch was having dramatic effects on local authority services and the NHS. Our challenge therefore, is to establish our credibility and find ways of working in partnership with others, when a number of the programmes with which our work would have had a natural affinity (e.g. Sure Start) have faced dramatic cuts in funding.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
Don’t be put off by the nay-sayers and the daunting path towards becoming a psychologist. Strive to build a portfolio of skills and experiences, especially in voluntary and third sector organisations, and find ways to explore and ‘give away’ your knowledge of the rich evidence base being built in many areas of psychology, wherever you find yourself working.  

One treasured possession
I have owned my own motorcycle since my teens, and my latest is a Triumph 800 Tiger, which my husband and I look forward to using next summer to tour parts of Europe!

One hero from psychology past or present
At present I am particularly drawn to the integrationist work of Dan Siegel, and his approach to ‘interpersonal neurobiology’.

One way HE teaching could become more community driven
A growing number of undergraduate programmes are working with various forms of community-based learning, as part of a work placement system. These could be ‘long and thin’ over the course of a semester, or more concentrated over a three- to four- week period in early summer. Such initiatives give students invaluable experiences of applying psychology in ‘real-life’ situations, and can impact
on their career thinking.

Online only answers

One cultural recommendation
I find that being involved in some form of the arts is of great importance, and would recommend that people take up some form of artistic expression. For example, I do a weekly watercolour class, and it is of great value as a stress reliever and means of connecting with people from varied backgrounds and interests. However, if pressed, one book that has stayed with me is What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, written by Dave Eggers (2006).

One alternative career path you may have chosen
I retain my love for human geography, the environment and landforms, and in another life I might have chosen to work in the field. I am intrinsically drawn to ideas of sustainable living practices, and particularly enjoy being in natural settings, for example hiking and sleeping out in wilder places.

One regret
That my full teaching load (and propensity to get excited by new ideas) has precluded my being able to write up more of the very interesting applied research in which I have engaged in the last decade.

One thing that makes me laugh
My grandchildren’s sense of humour and their delight in so many simple pleasures – it’s wonderful to have good ‘belly laughs’ with them, for example going to the annual panto in York together.

One of my greatest achievements
Being a part of the team that successfully lobbied for the establishment of the Community Psychology Section (CPS) of the BPS, and being the inaugural chair of the CPS for its first two years.

One thing that you would change about psychologists
It would be good to see academic psychologists being more open-minded about approaches and paradigms different to those in which they are invested. For example, I would like to see community psychology more widely known about and integrated into psychology programmes in the UK.

One hope for the future of psychology
In South Africa, it seems to me that organised psychology has managed to have a stronger presence and influence on health- and mental health-related practices; working on communication with different branches of the health professions. Psychologists there often work in multidisciplinary teams, and use their facilitation skills to good effect. I believe that organised psychology could do better in the UK to build up these inter-professional links, striving to break down the barriers (and rivalries/‘turf wars’) that appear to exist; and demonstrating the potential for psychology to be applied beyond individuals, in group and broader organisational settings.

One proud moment
When, in 2012, I was awarded a Higher Education Academy International Scholarship, to spend three months in Africa (Tanzania and South Africa) to explore psychology students’ experiences of international community-based work placements. I have been investigating ways of supporting students’ learning when engaging in community-based learning in Africa and the impacts on students’ development and knowledge related to employability. The work will also reflect on how learning in this way might enable us to enhance local community engagement in UK psychology programmes.