Melanie D. Hetzel-Riggin Strives to Improve Lives as Director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Penn State Erie
By Eva Richards

melanie-hetzel-riggin-imageMelanie Hetzel-Riggin will begin as the director of The Behrend School at Penn State in July.

In July, Melanie Hetzel-Riggin, M.A. ’02, Ph.D. ’05, will be stepping into a new role—one she has been preparing for throughout the last two decades.

As the director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Penn State Erie, Hetzel-Riggin will be supervising more than 80 faculty in eight majors, including communications, digital media and technology, general arts and sciences, political science, psychology, history, English, and creative writing. 

“As a trauma-informed, clinical community psychologist, my main drive in my career is to help others,” she said. “In this role, I can work to improve the lives of my faculty, staff and students; through these efforts I can help them help others.”

Penn State is a land-grant institution with a strong emphasis on community-engaged scholarship, locally termed “the Open Lab.” As director, Hetzel-Riggin can move beyond her own personal efforts to build systems and structures to improve community-engaged scholarship training and implementation for her faculty and students. 

“Given the uncertainty in the world, due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, racial and gender disparities, economic hardship, and climate change, I feel it is essential to build educational systems in which students are familiar with the impact of these challenges and how different disciplines can leverage traditional skills to make the world a better place for everyone,” she said.

In her daily work, Hetzel-Riggin promotes and updates the school’s curriculum, coordinates with other school directors on interdisciplinary programs, and directs the recruitment and retention efforts for students in our disciplines. She also evaluates faculty for annual review and promotion and tenure, supports research and outreach efforts of faculty and students, and connects with donors and other stakeholders related to the disciplines related to the school. She serves on the leadership team for the college and connects with other university campuses for coordinated efforts on research, recruitment, curriculum and academic excellence. 

Her new role will include all of this, and more, but she feels prepared because of the path she took to arrive here.

Growing up in Greendale and Whitewater, Wisconsin, Hetzel-Riggin was always involved in a number of social justice issues, such as addressing issues of poverty, equity for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, as well as the LGBTQ+ community and access to care. After earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Quincy University, she sought to further her education at NIU.

“I was very fortunate to be accepted to the NIU Ph.D. program in clinical psychology and to work with Dr. Tom McCanne and the Center for Family Violence and Sexual Assault,” she said. “I appreciated the balance in training between clinical work and research, and the faculty were supportive and provided opportunities to grow as an applied researcher of trauma and abuse. The opportunities to learn about the dynamics of sexual assault and family violence at the center, paired with my practicum experiences at Ben Gordon Center and internship at the NIU Counseling Center, prepared me for my research path looking at coordinated community responses to violence, abuse, and trauma-related outcomes. My training provided me experience in teaching at the collegiate level and training community members, which set me up for success in my current career.”

After graduating from NIU with her psychology in 2002 and Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 2005, Hetzel-Riggin taught for eight years as an assistant and then associate professor of psychology at Western Illinois University. During that time, she taught undergraduate and graduate courses in clinical psychology and related fields. She also worked to train and supervise graduate students in clinical community mental health practice and research. 

In 2013, Hetzel-Riggin secured a position as a tenured associate professor of psychology at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. In this role, she brought the first research-based master’s program to Penn State Behrend—the Master of Arts in Applied Clinical Psychology—which provides research and clinical training to graduates. From there, she was promoted to professor of psychology in 2017. She has served as program coordinator for the M.A. in Clinical Psychology Program, as program chair for the psychology program, and, more recently, as the associate director for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Behrend. 
“During my career I have supervised over 50 undergraduate students and dozens of graduate students in funded research projects, published over 40 peer-reviewed research articles and book chapters, presented over 100 papers at national and international conferences, and been awarded 1.4 million dollars in external funding in grants and contracts,” Hetzel-Riggin said. “I also regularly work with community partners on research and outreach efforts. In this capacity, I have trained over 600 people in trauma-informed interventions and bystander intervention.”

When she isn’t pursuing her official work, Hetzel-Riggin serves on the executive committee for the Erie Coalition for a Trauma-Informed Community (ECTIC), and she recently won the Pennsylvania State University Faculty Outreach Award for these efforts. 

Hetzel-Riggin is most proud of the work she did for a couple of domestic violence agencies in Macomb, Illinois, and Erie, Pennsylvania, which brought funding and awareness to the impact of domestic violence and increase training and education for the community about domestic violence, as well as the training she provided for the ECTIC. 

“Both of these efforts have allowed me to teach a wide range of people about research-backed information on domestic violence and trauma and resiliency, has included my students in the work, and had a positive impact in the community,” she said.

Looking back, Hetzel-Riggin credits her experiences at NIU with solidifying her drive to work as a psychology instructor while using her training to improve the community around her.

“My training was immensely influential,” she recalled. “My graduate supervisor, Dr. Tom McCanne, was an amazing support in both my research and clinical training, and he showed me how to be a great supervisor to my own students. The clinical training in assessment, conceptualization and intervention was amazing, and the supervision I received in my clinical work throughout my program, both in the Ph.D. program and as an intern at the counseling center, taught me to love clinical supervision and how to do it well. I felt supported in my efforts throughout my training while being appropriately challenged to grow.”