Alliant International University aims to foster applied scholarship, combining community engagement with a multicultural/international focus. Core faculty member and Assistant Professor at Alliant’s California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP), Dr. Matthew Porter, studies the influence of soft psychological variables on adjustment and development in response to existentially threatening life events. Porter, who joined Alliant in 2009, used his CSPP new faculty seed money to develop university and community affiliations in Rio de Janeiro while piloting new research methods there.
Porter’s efforts, along with CSPP and Alliant’s support, have begun to pay off. Porter recently won a Core Fulbright Scholar Grant to fund an investigation of the impact of culture on the psychological effects of long-term survivorship of those with HIV/AIDS in Brazil. Porter will undertake the project at the Instituto de Medicina Social da Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro.
Before coming to Alliant, during 12 years of clinical work on HIV/AIDS in New York City, Porter became interested in how some of the people he worked with managed to use the illness as a springboard to better psychological, philosophical or spiritual development. One aim of Porter’s current research, of which the Fulbright award is part, is to help clarify the potential role of existential threats as facilitative events for the development of wisdom, understood as a characteristic pertaining to optimal human development.
In this project, Porter focuses on people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS before the advent of the earliest effective treatments, highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART). This is a population of particular interest for lifespan developmental and health psychology because it affords an opportunity to study the impact of mortality, morbidity and stigmatization/disenfranchisement on well-being and psychological development in adults. The project is tied to Alliant’s mission, as it extends lifespan developmental psychology to an under-served population, often with mental health needs. Many of the participants in Porter’s ongoing project thought they had received a “death sentence.” Most progressed through life-threatening stages of illness, often coming very close to death. Those who remain alive today, with very few exceptions, are those who were fortunate enough to get access to HAART before it was too late. Porter states, “The project aims to use these people’s experiences to understand death’s potential to help us improve our lives.”
The central goal of the Brazilian portion of the project is to help clarify the impact of the collectivism-individualism continuum on the psychological effects of survivorship. In line with Alliant’s mission to promote multiculturalism/internationalism in scholarship, Porter will compare his data from Brazil to comparable data from an earlier U.S. phase of the same project. In 1996, the year that HAART was approved for use in the U.S., Brazil was the first, and at the time the only, country outside of North America and Europe that offered HAART, free of charge, to anyone in need. Though other countries have since followed suit, Brazil remains unique outside of North America and Europe in having a large population of people who have lived with HAART since its advent in 1996. It is this historical similarity, superimposed upon the marked cultural differences, that will allow Porter to make the planned comparison.
Ultimately, Porter hopes to contribute to the reduction of stigma currently facing the HIV/AIDS and other chronic illness communities, and increase mainstream appreciation of the potential wisdom of a marginalized cultural group. He is hopeful that a book, as well as several journal articles, will come from the larger project, and that his association with Fulbright will help his work reach a larger audience.
Porter has already involved a handful of CSPP/Alliant students in the larger project. The Brazilian arm will bring more opportunities for that. He adds, “Students often come to me looking for research experience, so the opportunity to help out in the monumental task of coding interviews is a win-win situation.” In the past, his students have collaborated with him up to and including co-authorship on peer-reviewed articles and presentation of the findings in academic symposia. This semester, students from his advanced existential class will participate in a lecture series to help them gain research experience as they work on their clinical listening and interpretation skills.
He states, “I have found Alliant to be very supportive of this type of work, which develops interconnections between scholarship, multicultural/international competence and community engagement.”