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Graduate Student Spotlight: Lahai Wicks

Ph.D Student, Experimental Psychology

As a Knoxville native, I had a seemingly straightforward trajectory towards UT. My parents met at UT after my mom immigrated to this country, and they both received bachelor’s degrees from the university prior to earning master’s degrees in their respective fields. My paternal grandfather was head of the BCMB department at UT during my childhood as well. With that being said, education was always prioritized by my family. I earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UT in 2014, but I had no idea how to continue my education or begin a career. After graduation in 2014, I worked a number of jobs for two years while applying for positions in various master’s programs for psychology. Thankfully, I was able to secure a position in the master’s program for psychology at Fisk University in 2016 due to experiences I gained while working at the Cole Neuroscience Center (now known as the Pat Summitt Clinic). I quickly earned my master’s degree from Fisk in general psychology with a biopsychosocial emphasis, and decided to pursue a doctorate in psychology. I found a great fit for my research interests in Dr. Debora Baldwin’s lab, and I was accepted into the doctorate program for experimental psychology at UT in 2018. 

Although they don’t truly count as professional teaching experiences, I had ample experiences in teaching before even going to college. I spent many years of my childhood and adolescence tutoring and peer mentoring other children through various educational programs. While working at the Cole Neuroscience Center, my mentors tasked me with teaching other interns how to detect various aphasias in our patients. This was the first time that I had to teach a skill to others that was of critical importance to the well-being of others, so it was very intimidating. However, I felt great pride in being able to improve the quality of care that our patients’ received through meeting my mentors’ expectations as a teacher. During my master’s degree studies at Fisk, I was able to act as a teaching assistant for a neuroscience course. As my first formal teaching experience within a university, it was an extremely formative experience for me. I taught half of the classes for the primary instructor, proctored exams, and graded half of the assignments. While I had been seemingly thrown into the “deep end”, it forced me to develop basic teaching skills quickly. Thankfully, I had wonderful students and a fantastic mentor that made the experience a pleasure. I would say that this experience was by far the most important for my teaching style because I began to shape my identity and style as an educator during this time. Upon getting back to UT for my doctoral studies, I was required to take a basic teaching course in order to be involved in any teaching activities within the department. I found this class to be helpful, as I had never considered how nuanced pedagogy could be. It also laid the foundation for my teaching assistant roles for my first two years in the program. I wasn’t able to be fully in-charge of a class at UT until the fall semester of 2020, where I taught a brand-new laboratory course in the psychology department. Between the pandemic’s many stressors, the online modality, and the inevitable hurdles of a new class, it was easily my most difficult teaching experience. However, it was also one of my most valuable experiences because it forced me to find creative ways of reaching the learning objectives for the class while under conditions that weren’t conducive to success. Since 2021, I have been teaching research methods alongside Dr. Bob DuBois and the wonderful HyFlex team. Being a HyFlex team member has been magnificent thus far. The team has shown me that we can be creative with our pedagogy while maintaining great efficacy as learning facilitators.  

I’ve had so many experiences with my students that have greatly affected me as an educator. There certainly have been experiences with students that let me know that I have truly done my job well. For me, a teacher isn’t just someone that strives to educate someone on a certain skill or set of ideas. A teacher is also a role model and an advisor. There have been times where I would see that a former student of mine had gone on to have a wonderful career or ask for a letter of recommendation to pursue graduate psychology studies. Those are some of the experiences that have made me feel like the work I do as a teacher is actually important. However, there have been several times where students that struggled with passing my classes have reminded me that the most important work of a teacher can go beyond the learning objectives. Case in point, I have had students suffer hardships outside of the classroom that negatively affected their studies. While I couldn’t always help them with passing my class, I was sometimes able to provide the advice and moral support that they needed to improve their outside circumstances. In some ways, that’s some of the most rewarding work that I feel like I can possibly do as a teacher.