Ed.D. Program Is "Just the Beginning" for Graduating Student

03-20-2019


by Ellie Walburg (B.S. ’17)

For Leslie Visser, the completion of a doctoral degree isn't the culmination of her researcher journey. It's a launchpad for new opportunities in addressing outpatient mental health therapy retention.

Visser is part of the first cohort group in Cornerstone University's Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership and Development degree program. In a decision between a Ph.D. in Psychology or an Ed.D., Visser was drawn to the practitioner-focus of the Professional & Graduate Studies' Ed.D. program, particularly in how her experiences could relate and apply to her work as a Limited Licensed Psychologist at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services.

"The program seemed quite tailored to what I was doing," she said. "I was shocked at how much I got out of the program, how practical, applicable and relevant the course work was. I've learned a tremendous amount about the agency I work for, and I am more confident in my role as a manager."

That practical application extends beyond her course work and is embodied in her dissertation project as a final piece to completing her doctoral degree.

"With the dissertation project, I was allowed to make it practical to my agency and my experience," she said. "I was able to choose a relevant topic I was interested in, and that made it fun. It made it something that was valued by my employer—valuable enough that they were willing to financially support me with some of it."

Her relevant and valuable topic is on the role of hope in outpatient mental health therapy, which is a phenomenon she witnesses on a daily basis. She says retention with mental health treatment programs is at about a 50% attrition rate, and the negative effects that result from low retention have consequences for the patients, therapists, agencies and the community.

The role of hope, stemming from hope theory, came from her instructor and project chair, Dr. Jeff Savage, associate dean of business at PGS. "I'm drawn to positive psychology," she said. "As therapists, one of the things we have to do is instill hope, because if people don't believe they can get better, they won't get better. Hope theory in my own practice is something that I use a lot, so that drew me to it."

Diving into the contributing factors and analysis of retention in mental health treatment programs has helped to fuel Visser's work both on a professional and community scale.

As a therapist and manager, as well as a parent, spouse and many other roles, Visser's journey through her Ed.D. program has empowered her for future successful endeavors. "My education always felt unfinished," she said. "It was never a question of whether I was going to finish but when. Right from the start, it was just very clear that this was what I was supposed to do."

In her work as a manager and therapist, her experiences have infused how she navigates her work life. She's kicked off a pilot program that incorporates similar methodology as what she's used in the classroom and is seeing what kind of impact it may have.

"Leslie has excelled at synthesizing research to support her arguments and to carry out a research project that directly benefits her employer," Savage said.

He continued to mention how the practical application Visser takes is foundational to the success of the Ed.D. program. "Our students are practitioners, already working and making an impact in their communities and within their organization," he said. "We help students further build lives that matter and, in doing so, give them motivation and strategies to help others build lives that matter."

Her topic of retention in mental health therapy is worth pursuing for Visser, as it is an issue that affects all. "As Christians, we're called to help people who are hurting," she said. "When people drop out of therapy, it wastes resources and is a barrier to effective treatment. And it impacts the community at large. It's not just about one person dropping out of treatment and not receiving help; it impacts everybody."

This commitment to serving others is something that spurs Visser on to future research and impact. Graduating in 2019 and walking across the stage is another step for Visser toward a lifelong path of learning.

"When I went into this program, I was good at my job. But as I leave this program, I am better at what I'm doing and I am more energized," she said. "The dissertation isn't the end for me. It's just the beginning."

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