University of Calgary
UofC Navigation

Werklund School alum's career in academia took root during teen years of 'culture shock'

Sandra Dixon credits immigrant experiences, spirituality for guiding her toward PhD in counselling psychology
March 9, 2017
Werklund School of Education alum Sandra Dixon, PhD, says her experiences as an immigrant to Canada — as well as her faith — drove her desire to seek a career in counselling psychology. Photo courtesy of Sandra Dixon

Werklund School of Education alum Sandra Dixon, PhD, says her experiences as an immigrant to Canada — as well as her faith — drove her desire to seek a career in counselling psychology. Photo courtesy of Sandra Dixon

Imagine, for a moment, that you are an immigrant, new to Canada. You’re in your teens, and you find yourself dislocated from immediate family and supportive friends. It’s up to you to find your way in your new world, which can sometimes be a very daunting experience: different culture, different norms, different social structures — different everything.

Such was the case for Sandra Dixon, who moved to Toronto from Jamaica as an adolescent.

“I experienced the impact of post-immigration stressors, such as feelings of cultural dislocation and culture shock,” explains Dixon. She says she relied on her spirituality and faith, and the people in those communities around her, to help her build the resiliency she needed to cope with the challenges she faced every day.

But the alumna of the Werklund School of Education’s Graduate Programs in Education says it was those challenges she felt as a teen that brought her to where she is today: a tenure-track assistant professor in the University of Lethbridge Faculty of Education, where she’s working with graduate students in Counselling Psychology.

Psychology education provides opportunity to help other immigrants

Dixon, who earned her PhD last summer, says her personal experiences ignited her passion to pursue a career in psychology. “I saw the profession as a unique way to understand the human experience, as well as to gain the competency as a psychologist to help other immigrants like myself who might struggle with post-immigration adjustment issues,” she says.

After earning her undergraduate and master’s degrees, Dixon stayed in Toronto and worked in counselling and intervention, first as a caseworker with Toronto Employment and Social Services, next as a youth counsellor and life skills facilitator with Malvern Youth Community and Employment Program, and then as a program facilitator with Malvern Family Resource Centre (Women’s Place). She says these roles allowed her to support many disenfranchised individuals and help them navigate difficult lifestyle challenges around immigration, unemployment, social dislocation, and educational setbacks.

But she felt there was something more she could do. “A deeper theoretical exploration of these issues was needed for me to create change for other non-dominant groups. This need for change aligned with my passion to become a psychologist and motivated me to follow my dream to acquire a PhD in counselling psychology from the University of Calgary.”

Werklund School provided Dixon a safe, supportive environment 

Dixon says her four years at UCalgary provided her with invaluable experiences she will carry with her for the rest of her life. She credits the staff at the Werklund School’s graduate programs office for creating a safe and supportive environment which allowed her to grow, learn and develop as a professional scholar and practitioner.

“Completing a PhD was a great and memorable milestone to accomplish,” says Dixon, “but it was also a tedious journey filled with an abundance of emotional pains and tears.

“It was encouraging for me to know that on this journey I was never alone. The support of the caring staff at the WSE’s graduate programs office, who were always available to help by answering questions in person or via emails as well as providing a listening ear when needed, was key. This ongoing support was meaningful and contributed to my success in the program.

"It is also important for me to highlight the importance in asking for help and don’t always assume that others around you, including professors, staff, and supervisors know what you need. Taking initiative and taking wise risks in your graduate and doctoral studies will get you through the turbulent times.”