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Life Experiences Spark Passion for Teaching

Story By Robert Lowery | Written on Sep 16, 2019 | Photo courtesy by David Dick


Alena Yastchenko puts in a lot of miles for her job. The CWU psychology professor supervises the Interdisciplinary Studies-Social Studies program in Ellensburg and at University Centers in Moses Lake, Wenatchee, and Yakima.

It can be a long haul, but she doesn’t mind. In fact, while traveling is a big part of her vocation, it is also her avocation, especially by motorcycle. Her current favorite bike is a Russian-made motorcycle-sidecar combination.

“It’s a behemoth (750 cubic centimeters or about 160 horsepower). It doesn’t have the modern equipment,” Yastchenko explained with a laugh. “They designed them in 1936 and they haven’t changed much.”

Yastchenko (Experimental Psychology, '99) and her husband Dave Woody.Yastchenko, who also oversees program curriculum online for all centers, said each University Center has its own personality and culture.

“We have students with vastly different resources and demands on their time,” she said. “They are much more likely to have a full-time job—or a job-and-a-half. I know how precious their time is, so I make sure they understand that the assigned work is clearly connected to the learning objectives of the course, that I value their time, and do not assign any busy work.

“My goal is to equip students with the tools they need to accomplish more and experience more enjoyment in their jobs, and to facilitate their professional and personal development,” she continued.

A native of St. Petersburg, Russia, she came to the United States as an international exchange student, after beginning her studies at St. Petersburg State University.

Eventually arriving at CWU, she earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in experimental psychology with an emphasis on applied behavior analysis and clinical psychology. Going full circle in her educational career, Yastchenko earned her PhD from St. Petersburg State.

After she earned her undergraduate degree at CWU, she began her professional career at Service Alternatives, working at a residential home for children with autism and other developmental disorders. She still serves as a clinical consultant and develops training curricula for the agency.

“It helps me stay connected with the work and the professionals that are doing the work,” she said of those efforts. “I have always been a practitioner in the field of mental health, so when I teach my students, I can bring that practical, current experience with me.”

She has additional practical experience working with rescued basset hounds. It’s an area in which her expertise also plays a role.

“They are very strong-willed and independent, and notoriously misunderstood as being stubborn and difficult to train,” said Yastchenko, who has adopted seven basset hounds over the years. “They’re just assertive and have strong personalities. I have been able to rescue animals that other people say cannot be trained. I can say that I have the professional and educational background that allows me to give it a try.”

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