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Emerging Scholars: Committed to Collaboration

Committed to Collaboration

Rheeda L. Walker

Title: Assistant Professor, Psychology, University of South Carolina
Education: Ph.D., Psychology, Florida State University; M.S., Psychology, Florida State University; B.A., Psychology, University of Georgia
Age: 32

Accepting a position as an assistant professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina in 2002 was not just a coup for Dr. Rheeda Walker, but for her extended family as well.

“Most of my family is in South Carolina,” Walker says, “so I have aunts and uncles who are proud to have a niece at the flagship institution — an institution that they could not even attend.”

The long history of African-Americans succeeding and thriving despite the realities of racism in the United States is at the center of Walker’s research on Black mental health and suicide. Specifically, she investigates the social and cultural factors that account for the historically low rate of suicide among African-Americans. Walker also studies the recent increase in suicides among Black men, a particularly timely focus in light of the recent apparent suicide of James Dungy, the 18-year-old son of NFL head coach Tony Dungy.

According to Walker, the statistics on Black suicide rates have been available for years, but there has been very little theoretical and empirical work to provide an understanding of the numbers and to help prevent such deaths. She noticed the void in graduate school and decided to pursue the topic for her dissertation.

“Herein lies the importance of Rheeda’s work,” says Dr. Thomas Joiner, the Bright-Burton Professor of Psychology at Florida State University.

“She has been successful because she has combined rigorous scientific methodology with cultural understanding and sensitivity to address a key public health problem.”

Joiner was Walker’s major professor on her dissertation at FSU, where she completed her Ph.D. She credits his mentoring and guidance on doing scientific research for her successful completion of the degree. Before working with Joiner, Walker says she had decided to quit graduate school. A friend encouraged her to seek out Joiner, who was new to the university’s psychology department. Even though Joiner was not accepting new students, he gave Walker a writing task to complete, which led to her first publication in 1999.

Walker and Joiner have collaborated on at least 10 journal articles over the past few years, but it was that first publication, authored with Joiner, that made Walker competitive for the job at the University of South Carolina immediately after finishing her degree. The traditional route for psychology Ph.D. students is to take a post-doctoral position and get a clinical license before seeking a tenure-track faculty job.

Walker admits that without taking a post-doctoral position, she has had to play catch-up. While others spend that time earning a clinical license, she has had to go above and beyond to get her license while on the tenure-track. The feat has been even more difficult, she says, because as the field of psychology has become more research focused, the applied aspect is not as rewarded. But being able to practice was a personal priority for Walker.

“As an African-American, I realized that I stand on the shoulders of those who expect me to return to the community and provide a service,” she says.

Walker is a member of the South Carolina Suicide Prevention Task Force, and she conducts workshops on mental health at her local church. It is important, she says, that she is able to assist people in her community when they come to her with mental health questions or ask for referrals.

“My hope is that more African-American academics would act more as a collective,” she says. “A lot of us have too much schooling and not enough education.”

By Robin V. Smiles

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