Interview with Jason Steward
In honor of Black History Month, we spoke with three PhD alumni from the Counseling Psychology program to learn about what drew them to Psychology and how they are now making an impact as professionals. They also told us about why it is essential that we work to increase Black representation in our program, the profession, and the field.
Jason Steward, PhD ‘05
When asked what drew Jason Steward, PhD, to psychology as a field/profession, he related back to a singular event in his undergraduate experience at the University of Columbia, MO. As an undergrad, Steward worked in a residence hall as a floor coordinator. One night, he came across two students who had been sexually assaulted in two separate incidents. Steward described, “One of the striking memories I have was how different their conceptualizations were of what happened to them, how different their coping mechanisms were. The profound lack of understanding that I had on how best to support them in that moment.” That singular event led to his subsequent pursuit of a graduate degree in Psychology and his interest in how to support, work with, and connect with people who have experienced complex trauma and in particular, sexual assault. Steward learned about the highly ranked Counseling program in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, and of Professor Patricia Frazier, his future advisor, who was well-known for her work on responses to traumatic events. He eventually applied, was accepted, and moved to Minneapolis to pursue his doctoral degree.
Now, Steward is the Director of Psychology Training at the VA Portland Healthcare System in Oregon, and he is a practicing psychologist and supervisor in their mental health clinic. Additionally, since August 2020, Steward is serving as the Interim Chief Psychologist for the Alaska VA Healthcare System. In reflecting on how his graduate training prepared him for these leadership and clinical roles, steward described that “one of the great things about being in Psychology, particularly at the University of Minnesota...you are being trained in a whole host of things in the field that can allow you to step into really anywhere. The training you get in research, program development, understanding psychological concepts and theory, emphasis on empiricism, the opportunity to teach...those skills sets are invaluable.” He also noted that the emphasis on research in Psychology - “how to ask a solid research question, what statistics to use to evaluate it, understanding concepts of mediators and moderators, path modeling” - is key to his ability to ask good questions, create a process by which to evaluate those questions, and come to a solid conclusion.
When Steward was at the University of Minnesota, he noted that he was one of only two African American students in the program at that time; a lack of representation continues to be a problem at predominantly white institutions. Steward thought that one of the barriers to greater representation of BIPOC students in Psychology programs and in the field is, perhaps, an air of elitism in many institutions, which impacts recruitment strategies;
The type of net that you cast has a lot to do with the type of fish you catch...At the end of the day, the reason I think that African American students don’t go into these programs to the same degree is that they are not actively recruited, the retention strategies don’t help keep them around, and the cultures are slow to adopt change.
Steward is grateful for his experiences in Minnesota, but he admitted to feeling at times as if he were an outsider. He stated that he felt it was his responsibility to assimilate into the existing culture rather than be welcomed and accepted into it as he was. He cautioned that “MN Nice” culture could be experienced as insular and dismissive of those with BIPOC and marginalized identities. While he acknowledged that there has been a huge cultural change and shift in the last few decades, there is still more work to be done if institutions truly want to successfully recruit and retain African American students. For Steward, the mentorship he received from Professor Frazier and Emeritus Professor Jo-Ida Hansen, as well as the deep and long-lasting relationship he developed with them, was everything. Steward described what their connection has meant to him:
My family growing up was really small, just me, my grandmother, and my mom. My grandmother was like a parent. She passed away months before I went to the University of Minnesota which was very challenging for my family right before I went to the U….One of the last things she told me was, ‘In order to have a good life, here’s what I want you to do: She said, “Of all the things I have done, no matter where I have gone, what I have done, the people who were around me or how hard it was...I have always tried to keep one person from that experience in my circle for the rest of my life. Wherever you go, work as hard as you can to find at least one person to connect with that you would be willing to keep in your circle forever. If you do that, you will find yourself having a very good and meaningful life at the end of it.’ I’ve always kept that with me. As difficult and as hard as the University of Minnesota at times was, Pat and Jo-Ida, who represented the U for me, are absolutely two people that I will carry with me in my circle. For everything that they have meant to me and my career, I am so grateful for them. Those are two people that I will keep with me.
Steward still keeps in touch with Professors Frazier and Hansen, although he has clearly grown from being their mentee to someone who is now a professional mentor for future psychologists at the VA.