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For Dr. Donna DiMatteo-Gibson, undergraduate online program at Big Muddy River Correctional Center offers genuine social justice work

Stories | 01.30.23

Donna DiMatteo-Gibson, Ph.D., is no stranger to having a video of her projected to a room full of students. She’s been teaching online classes since 2001 both at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

But on a day in June 2021, this would — for the first time — be an opportunity to teach a group of incarcerated students and explore the study of psychology.

Dr. DiMatteo-Gibson and her 10 students who are incarcerated at the Big Muddy River Correctional Center were embarking on a pilot program that gave the men an opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree in applied psychology. To her, the undergraduate online program was a very specific example of doing — and not just talking about — social justice work.

“I didn’t want anything to cloud or hinder the success of the program.” said Dr. DiMatteo-Gibson, program director in the Online Doctor of Philosophy in Industrial and Organizational Psychology program and the only Online Adler faculty currently tasked with teaching the program’s courses.

Thankfully, there were no major problems that day.

“This was our first adventure into online/video classes,” said Bryan Cross, educational facility administrator at Big Muddy River Correctional Center, adding that he’s been pleased with the delivery of the program. “The students have been able to participate in group discussion with the instructor during the synchronous video sessions as well as submitting assignments and feedback through the Online Adler portal on the computers. The technical issues have been worked through and the delivery appears to be smooth and effective.”

And today, nearly two years since the program began, there’s a new opportunity to improve and make greater social justice impact.

Adler University and the Illinois Department of Corrections recently received an $889,915 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance, allowing the B.A. in Applied Psychology program to expand from the current 10 eligible students to 26 over the next three years.

Teaching remotely

Dr. DiMatteo-Gibson received her Ph.D. in industrial organizational psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology, where she also earned her master’s degrees in psychology and industrial and organizational psychology. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and speech communications from the University of San Diego.

When she saw a teaching opportunity at Adler’s Online Campus in 2018, she jumped at the opportunity.

“My background is in I/O psychology and teaching online is my passion,” she said. “But I had always wanted to do more social justice work, which is what led me to Adler.”

Soon she accepted a position as an adjunct faculty, then as program coordinator for the Online Campus master’s and doctoral I/O programs, and then as an interim online program director. Soon that position became permanent.  Most of her students are doctoral candidates in the I/O psychology program, which trains students to be forward-thinking, socially responsible organizational experts who draw on scientific research to gain a deeper understanding of motivation and how to maximize human potential.

Then came the request for her to teach the courses for the undergraduate online program at Big Muddy River. She didn’t hesitate to say yes.

“With this initiative, I can also use my experience in online teaching and background in I/O psychology, which looks at change at an individual, group, and organizational level but then takes it a step further by looking at the impact on a community,” she said.

For the most part, her work with the students at Big Muddy River is no different from those in her other classes, where she’s projected on screen through a videoconferencing service.

However, because of the students’ setting, she does additional work to ensure the course is effective. Every week, she compiles and sends out class materials in advance for students to print out, giving them time to review everything. She also creates additional PowerPoints and supplementary materials that relate to the learning goals for the week.

“The students at Big Muddy River lack the ability to search for materials related to the course so it is important to ensure they have the necessary resources,” she said. “Once they do have the materials, these students digest the content and do a lot of insightful work.”

Hopes for the future

With the federal grant, Dr. DiMatteo-Gibson said she’s excited for the program’s potential.

“I would love to see this program continue to expand in the future, accepting students who are in other facilities and offer opportunities to learn for women who are incarcerated,” she said.

“There’s also potential for us to better connect our graduates to outside organizations that can facilitate finding career opportunities,” Dr. DiMatteo-Gibson added.

And it’s her students’ future and career goals that Dr. DiMatteo-Gibson said she’s most looking forward to. One student has expressed interest in pursuing a master’s degree, possibly at Adler. One student wants to be an English professor, while others expressed interest in careers that help others. One was interested in working in drug and alcohol addiction and helping others who have been incarcerated.

“They all want to do something positive,” she said. “I’m looking forward to seeing the opportunities this program opens up for them as well as the impacts to the larger communities.”

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