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Sylaska in her element teaching social psychology

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – When psychology professor Kateryna Sylaska talks about “application, application, application,” she’s not preaching to Monmouth College seniors about the method needed to be hired professionally after they graduate.

Rather, Sylaska is referring to her teaching method, which she says is especially valuable in her main area of focus – social psychology.

“I call social psychology the psychology of your everyday life,” said Sylaska, who joined the faculty last fall after teaching most recently at Reed College in Portland, Ore. “It’s not just about learning theories. It’s about what we can learn from these theories to have better outcomes in our own lives.”

Sylaska said classroom discussions are a “huge” part of her application style of teaching.

“I get excited when the students come up with their own examples and make real-life connections to the ideas we’re discussing,” she said. “Everyone has a different background, so I really enjoy those times when the students roll with their own ideas, telling about their experiences and sharing their ideas with others.”

When the students do that, it’s almost like having a class full of teaching assistants.

“A student can hear another student speak about something and think, ‘Oh, OK, it isn’t just me who feels this way or has had this happen,’” said Sylaska. “I enjoy having those moments with students. They can teach each other.”

Sylaska said her interest in psychology started in high school, when she worked as a counselor for a teen suicide hotline, “talking with young adults who were having troubles.”

Sylaska studied psychology at Northern Arizona University, where she also received a master’s degree in general psychology. She then earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in psychology with an emphasis on social psychology from the University of New Hampshire.

Sylaska said that during her first year at Northern Arizona she “fell in love with social psychology.”

“It really focuses on the highs and lows of humanity – the Holocaust, genocide, racism and prejudice,” she said. “But, on the other hand, we help people, often putting our own lives at risk.”

Sylaska experienced first-hand the kindness of strangers when she backpacked through Europe.

“I was amazed by the number of complete strangers who offered to buy me lunch, or who would give me a T-shirt out of their bag,” she said.

Sylaska said one of the driving questions in social psychology is: Does altruism really exist?

“I want to believe it does,” she replied, based on her decade of study in the field. “There’s a lot of evidence that the vast majority of what we do is self-motivated, so even if it’s something wonderfully nice, the reason we do it could be for reward or because of guilt. But I’m an optimist, and I really do believe true altruism exists.”

Sylaska, who knew as far back as middle school that she wanted to be a teacher, said she’s in her element when she’s in front of a classroom.

“I’m totally biased, but I think what I do is the coolest thing in the world,” she said.

When she’s not in her main element, the “big reader” is tackling a book per week. She also has a background in competitive skating and previously took professional cooking classes.

“I make a really good vegetarian tikka masala,” she said.