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Committed to Giving Back

WheelerMelissa J. Wheeler

Institution: Northern Arizona University
Graduate Program: Ph.D., Combined Counseling/School Psychology
Education: B.A., Psychology, University of North Dakota; M.A., Counseling Psychology, University of North Dakota
Mentor: Dr. Y. Evie Garcia, Northern Arizona University; Dr. Chesleigh Keene, Northern Arizona University

Described by her adviser as having “a remarkable history of perseverance despite an unusual number of educational barriers,” Melissa Wheeler is on her way to becoming an interdisciplinary researcher and professor with a Ph.D. in combined counseling and school psychology at Northern Arizona University.

Wheeler was propelled toward her doctorate by a professor once telling her that “statistically, you are not supposed to be here,” so she pursued not only a master’s degree in counseling psychology but is now a fourth-year doctoral candidate.

Wheeler began her post-secondary experience at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, where she earned an associate of arts degree and began to realize her potential in academia. Wheeler says a summer internship at the University of Washington with the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) after her college graduation in 2012 “exposed me to the possibility of a career in academic research examining culturally relevant, sustainable prevention in Native American communities."

Wheeler credits the “eye-opening” NIDA internship with reinforcing the passion for research that she was already developing and inspiring her to apply for other training and research opportunities.

“Though the odds were stacked against me . . . I became the first in my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and next year a doctorate,” she tells Diverse.

Her dissertation project examines a culturally appropriate substance use treatment among Native American populations. Wheeler will also assist in conducting a NIDA grant-funded study that focuses on culturally centered health care titled “Factors and Training Approaches that Enhance the Integration of American Indian Culture into Tele Behavioral Substance Use/Substance Abuse Disorders Treatment.” Wheeler notes that her dissertation will expand from this study and examine cultural treatment practices, identify effective treatment approaches, and identify factors that support culturally sensitive substance use treatment and mental health care.

Wheeler has taken on the role of mentoring Indigenous undergraduate and graduate scholars in research methodology, data analysis, writing, and other academic skills through the summer research training in stitutes at the University of North Dakota, according to Dr. Y. Evie Garcia, associate professor and doctoral training director at Northern Arizona University. Garcia commends Wheeler for being “passionate about mentorship as she has co-developed the first virtual mentorship program for Native American psychology majors through the Society of Indian Psychologists.” Wheeler says mentorship is part of her heritage. “My goal to give back to underserved Indigenous communities stems from growing up on the Navajo reservation, where I was made aware at an early age of the numerous health disparities and behavioral health issues that occurred in my community,” Wheeler explains. “As a scientist-practitioner, my work is grounded and guided by the principles of growing up a Navajo woman, in that we are responsible for one another, and our shared experiences move us to incite an at mosphere of conscious and purpose-driven paths.”

As a graduate assistant under a W. K. Kellogg Foundation Grant, she collaborated with Northern Arizona University and tribal nations in Arizona and New Mexico to provide professional development workshops to tribal early childhood educators. She also developed programs to integrate Indigenous values and curricula and presented the overall project at the 2021 APA Annual Convention.

Wheeler also has upcoming research as part of an internship with the Northwest Native American Research Centers for Health (NW NARCH) that examines how a cancer diagnosis affects Native American patients and their families' mental well-being. Wheeler says, “This research project will give me the skills and knowledge to reduce barriers to care to improve the quality of life for patients.”

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