The Thinkers

The Thinkers

As the 2020 Mensa Foundation Distinguished Teacher of the Year, Kenneth Walters, associate professor of psychology, shares a commitment to education, research, and mentorship.

Since its inception, the Mensa Foundation Distinguished Teacher Award has been presented to only three college professors, including Southern's Ken Walters (left). He was nominated by senior and Mensa member Paul McKee (right), who one day plans to work as a college professor.

Having served with the United States Marine Corps Infantry from 2013 – 2018, senior psychology major Paul McKee brought extensive life experience to Southern. But as a first-generation college student starting college classes mere weeks after completing active duty, McKee was also a higher education novice. A common thread of advice — “Get involved in faculty-directed research!” — led him to the office of Kenneth S. Walters, associate professor of psychology.

It was a wise move. Walters, a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist, joined Southern in 2009, relaunching his higher education career after focusing on his clinical practice for about 10 years. His research focuses include psychopathology as well as substance use and abuse among college students. In recent years, he and his students have studied depression, traumatic stress, suicidality (thoughts about taking one’s life,  suicide plans and attempts), and the non-medical use of stimulants and opioids among college students.

At Southern, Walters has mentored 45 students on his research team with impressive results. They’ve published nine papers in scientific and professional journals, delivered 12 oral presentations, and presented 76 posters at scientific conferences. Thirty-nine of Walters’ former student researchers have graduated to date — and all have been admitted to competitive graduate training programs.

The professor recruits six to nine research assistants a year, typically academically strong upperclassmen. So, it was unexpected when McKee, then a first-year Southern student, asked to join Walters’ research team. McKee’s nontraditional student background complicated matters. He did not have SAT scores or a college transcript showcasing past grades. “He did present me with a Mensa [high IQ society] membership card and an excellent writing sample. . . . I found him to be intelligent, personable, and highly determined to succeed,” says Walters.

About 300 Southern students with connections to the military are attending Southern during the fall 2020 semester, including 245 veterans, 35 National Guard/Reservists, and 20 dependents.  As a fellow veteran, Walters understands some of the challenges these students might face.

From 1987 to 1991, Walters served with the U.S. Armed Forces as an Army Ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division, and was part of the initial Operation Desert Shield campaign to liberate Kuwait. He started college in 1991 — like McKee, just weeks after his active duty ended. “To make that transition in such a short time can be challenging,” says Walters.

Kenneth Walters

Walters also knew what it was like to be a first-generation college student. “I came from a background in which higher education was neither expected nor the norm. . . . Overcoming disadvantage and humble beginnings is a commonly shared theme between me and my students,” says the professor.

Walters gave McKee a chance — and has never looked back. “He is now the lab manager for my research team, putting to good use his notable leadership skills,” he says of McKee, who is on track to graduate this spring and is applying to doctoral programs in behavioral neuroscience. “He is an extraordinarily talented young man. I have only the highest hopes for his future,” says his professor.

McKee has equally high regard for Walters — and nominated him for the Mensa Foundation 2020 Distinguished Teacher Award. The award recognizes a teacher, professor, or instructor at any educational level who has had an especially positive influence on the education or life of a Mensa member. Walters won the national honor — and is one of only three higher education faculty members to receive the award since its inception.

Membership in Mensa is highly selective. To join, you must score in the top two percent of the general population on an accepted standardized intelligence test. In the U.S., members range in age from 2 to 106 years, and include engineers, homemakers, chief executive officers, students, and more  — an almost infinite array of people all sharing one trait: high intelligence.

“The Mensa Foundation is honored to recognize Dr. Walters, whose research and instructional approach exemplifies the foundation’s mission to use intelligence to benefit humanity,” says Marie Mayer, president of the Mensa Foundation.

The organization’s commitment to the community is not lost on McKee.  Looking forward, he plans to follow in his mentor’s footsteps and become a university faculty member, inspired, he says, by Walters and others in the Department of Psychology.  “Although this list is not exhaustive, Dr. Michael Nizhnikov, Dr. Christopher Budnick, and Dr. W. Jerome Hauselt are among the most committed, stimulating, and integrous people that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting,” says McKee.

He continues: “Of course, the nomination was for Dr. Walters, who embodies all that is desired in a mentor, educator, and friend. There is none more deserving of this recognition than him. He has spent his life in service of others, first in the United States Army, then as clinical psychologist, and now as a professor. It was fantastic news to hear about his winning. Dr. Walters deserves every second of this.”