Sullivan Award Recipient Dr. Marsha Walton Leaves Meaningful Legacy at Rhodes College

In her 41 years at Sullivan Foundation partner school Rhodes College, retiring Professor of Psychology Dr. Marsha Walton has successfully merged outstanding scholarly achievements with a dedication to mentoring students, helping them to open their eyes to opportunities and navigate new experiences. That’s why she was honored as the non-student recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award at Rhodes College’s commence ceremony earlier this month.

Walton has authored or co-authored more than 90 conference presentations and 30 research publications and book chapters. As part of her research, she has collected stories from thousands of children describing their own experiences with peer conflict and with social relationships. This work has contributed to an understanding of conflict resolution, friendship and moral development.

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Walton has mentored more than 75 undergraduate researchers whose work has resulted in publications and national and international conference presentations. More than 40 of her research students have gone on to earn doctorates in psychology, and many more have formed successful careers in education, public health, medicine and allied health professions.

One of those mentees was Dr. Sherry Turner, vice president of strategic initiatives at Rhodes. “Rhodes is committed to cultivating a lifelong passion for learning among its students,” Turner said. “Marsha Walton’s investment in me as a student has certainly yielded life-long impact. Working with her was the high point of my experience at Rhodes. She was an outstanding professor and mentor.”

“When I was a student, she saw my potential, held me to high standards, invited me to join her research team, and encouraged me to pursue graduate studies as a developmental psychologist,” Turner added. “She has continued to inspire me at every phase of my professional career. When I was a graduate student, she invited me to return to Rhodes to teach and complete my dissertation research. When I returned to Memphis three years ago, she invited me to visit the campus. At the time, I could not have imagined that I would become the vice president of strategic initiatives. Rhodes has been fortunate to have had a member of its faculty whose very presence has enhanced the lives of its students in extraordinary ways. I am delighted to salute Marsha’s career at my alma mater.”

A collaboration between Walton and Alice Davidson, a 2002 graduate of Rhodes College, resulted in the book, “Conflict Narratives in Middle Childhood: The Social, Emotional, and Moral Significance of Story-Sharing,” which was published in 2017. The book examines nearly 3,000 narratives from children about their own experiences with interpersonal conflict. Davidson, now an associate professor and chair of psychology at Sullivan Foundation partner school Rollins College, emulates Walton’s approach to mentoring by including students in her community-based research.

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Dr. Walton works with a baby in her early years at Rhodes College.

Walton, who joined the Rhodes faculty in 1979, has encouraged students to think broadly about the intersections between psychology and other disciplines. She has taught interdisciplinary courses with faculty in biology, economics, English, history, mathematics, gender and sexuality studies, philosophy, religious studies, sociology, educational studies, and theatre. Walton also was an early adopter of service-learning pedagogies, having her students work in settings off campus.

In 1999, when Rhodes formed a partnership with the Memphis Non-Violence Education and Advocacy Network to increase community involvement in creating peaceable schools, Walton participated. She currently collaborates with Dr. Kiren Khan, an assistant professor of psychology, to study narratives of preschoolers, and with Dr. Elizabeth Thomas, a professor of psychology at Rhodes, on the Community Narrative Research Project, in which participants of Bonner Scholars program at Rhodes shared stories about their experiences serving in Memphis communities as part of their scholarship.

For the breadth and depth of her work, Walton won the Clarence Day Award for Outstanding Research and Creative Activity in 2018. When the Council on Undergraduate Research named her a recipient of its Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research in the Social Sciences Award in 2020, Walton commented, “It is amazing to be given an award for doing something this intrinsically rewarding.”

In retirement, Walton plans to spend more time in nature, canoeing, biking, and hiking, but she will continue her research and writing, seeking to learn more about how children and adults make their lives meaningful as they share stories about their everyday experiences.

This article has been edited slightly from the original version appearing on the Rhodes College website.

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