SCP Interview with Dr. Amber A. Hewitt

Amber A. Hewitt, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist who resides in Washington, D.C.  She is an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the NIH, National Institute of Mental Health in the Office of Science Policy, Planning, and Communications.  Amber is also an adjunct faculty member at American University (Psychology Department) and Simmons College (Online MSW program).  She was the 2016-2017 American Psychological Association (APA)/ AAAS policy fellow in the Office of United States Senator Cory A. Booker where she worked on health and child welfare policy issues.  Before moving to D.C., Amber was a tenure-track faculty member in the Department of Psychology at the University of Akron in Akron OH.  Amber received her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Loyola University Chicago. Amber is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Association of Black Psychologists, and the American Psychological Association. She is a contributor for the Psychology Today blog You, Empowered. Amber is also an Ambassador for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Amber is committed to facilitating civic engagement and resilience among marginalized youth and families.

Interview

Q:        Counseling psychologists work in a variety of settings and practice counseling psychology in a variety of ways. Could you talk briefly about your unique setting?

A:        I first want to say that, before I describe my setting, that it’s a unique one and that I identify as a counseling psychologist and a social justice practitioner. So the setting that I currently work in is the world of policy – science policy and public policy. I transitioned from academia to policy work about a little over a year ago. So the setting that I recently came out of in August was Capitol Hill. I worked in the Office of U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and worked on health policy. It was quite the interesting year. I worked alongside the health policy legislative assistant.

Currently, I work for a federal agency that funds mental health research. So I’m working on, not necessarily public policy, but more so science policy as it relates to funding mental health research. I talk about being a social justice practitioner because I believe that I still practice the values of counseling psychology, but in a more nontraditional setting.

Q:        So could you talk a little more about how counseling psychology factors into your daily work?

A:        On Capitol Hill, I feel that it was more of a natural integration when I worked in the Senate because I actively sought to work for a member that speaks out against social problems and someone who I personally saw as a social justice advocate. Social justice is something that is integral to both my personal and professional identity.

It factored into my daily work responsibilities because when I met with advocacy groups, or constituents, I tried to validate their stories, not just see them as a person who has this particular health issue or who wants to come in to advocate for a particular issue, but see them as a whole person. I didn’t really know the impact that I was having until the end of that time, one of my colleagues that I reported directly to who had been socialized on the Hill, she said, “I really learned how to talk to constituents and advocacy groups in a different way.”

One meeting that I’ll never forget was with a group of women who were advocating for breast cancer research and I thought that they would be representatives of the organization but they were actually women who were diagnosed with stage four metastatic breast cancer. That was just a very difficult meeting where it was hard for me to separate my identity as a counseling psychologist from my identity as a legislative staffer. So that’s just a moment that stands out to me.

Q:        Did you always aspire to be a counseling psychologist?

A:        I must say I didn’t know about counseling psychology and how it was separate from other sub-fields of psychology, particularly clinical psychology until later in my undergraduate training and when looking for doctoral programs, what drew me to counseling psychology programs was the social justice mission and perspective. As someone who grew up in the deep South and hearing stories of my parents’ social justice and activism during the civil rights era, I think I was always primed to be aware of oppression and injustice and I knew I wanted to go into a helping profession. So I think the values [of counseling psychology] drew me to counseling psychology.

Q:        What advice would you give to students or early career professionals who aspire to do similar work or to follow in your footsteps?

A:        I have advice that I’ve only recently accepted for myself [laughs] and that is to not let other people put you in a box. There are so many different settings and things that you can do as a counseling psychologist. So recognizing that there are multiple ways to be a scholar or to be a psychologist. Also, if you’re interested in advocacy and public policy, start educating yourself on the issues. Start thinking earlier on about how your current or your emerging research or clinical interest might help shape or inform policy or how it sheds some light on how to solve social problems. So, don’t put yourself or let other people put you in a box and personally I feel like there is more than one way to be a counseling psychologist.

Q:        How does your involvement in Division 17, Society of Counseling Psychology or in professional psychology organizations support the work you do?

A:        I think now that I’m in a setting outside of research and practice, Division 17 serves as a place of validation because sometimes in a setting where I’m not around a whole bunch of counseling psychologists or counseling psychology students…and knowing that I have that professional home from which I can draw strength and support, I feel like that’s how Division 17, APA and the Association of Black Psychologists currently support me.

Q:        What does the future of counseling psychology look like from your unique vantage point?

A: From my vantage point, it looks like social action. I know we talk about a lot of social justice and understand the theory and we can talk about how it works and connect the dots, but I’m hoping to see more of a translation of our work into the public [arena]. That’s where I see it going. I would like to see us more at the table when it comes to policy discussions and continuing to provide research that helps, not only illuminate social problems, but helps to solve them.

Q:        Is there anything else you would like to add?

A:        One thing I’ll add is that if it wasn’t for APA and me finding out about the Congressional Fellowship program, I don’t think I would have made this career transition which now I just feel is so fulfilling. I just want to give a shout out to the APA Congressional Fellowship program.

Footnote

This interview was conducted by Douglas Knutson, Ph.D. (he/him) as a member of the SCP Connect writing team. Douglas is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Verbal fillers were removed from the transcript of this interview and some content was abbreviated to fit space limitations.

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