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An opportunity to mentor children growing up in an inner-city neighborhood has cemented Dominican University graduate Aliyah White’s interest in pursuing a career helping adolescents overcome trauma.

White, who recently completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology, is a volunteer with the Cities Project, a nonprofit partnership between Chicago universities and Chicago Public Schools that offers after-school programs for children in grades 6 to 8 with a focus on their psychological health. Children are taught coping skills for dealing with stressors and trauma while they also build relationships with a university student mentor through various activities and field trips, White said.

“We talk about stress release and different coping mechanisms,” she explained.

“We definitely want to give them the skills they may need for all life situations and stressors,” White added.

Her work with the Cities Project earned White a mention in Dominican University President Dr. Glena Temple’s inauguration speech in April when Temple shared examples of students who are exemplifying the university motto of caritas and veritas in their own lives.

White said she discovered the Cities Project with help from Dr. Sophia Duffy, a psychology professor at Dominican. She has also taken a number of courses that helped prepare her for working with the program’s youth, while also deciding her future career path. One of these classes was PSYC 460, advanced topics in psychology, which focused on trauma response.

“It opened my eyes to the extent of trauma and how so many people can experience it in one way or another,” White said. “What stood out to me is that society expects the world to function and act as if nothing bad has ever happened to them, but that’s not the reality of our world.”

One of the ways the undergrad volunteers with the Cities Project help children deal with anxiety, stress and trauma is by teaching them mindfulness techniques, which require them to be present in the moment, focusing on their senses. Time is also dedicated to relationship building and encouraging the students to talk about how they are feeling emotionally, White said.

Additionally, the children are taught advocacy by taking on a project that allows them to give back to the community.

White has been working with youth at three elementary schools in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. She serves as a school liaison, acting as a connection between mentors and supervisors, and she steps in as a one-on-one mentor as needed. She also supports the program’s research component through data collection.

Stressors facing the children include community violence, family trauma, poverty, a lack of resources within their community and the ongoing effects of the pandemic, White said.

“We’re here to be supportive and we’re here to care,” White said. “We want to see the students grow and we want to support them in any way we can. I hope after we leave each week that they not only feel that support, but they trust we will be back next week and will be consistent people in their lives.”

White plans to pursue a master’s degree and doctorate at DePaul University, with a goal of receiving a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Her focus, she said, will be on adolescents and trauma.

“I want to work with schools and help the faculty and staff learn about trauma-healing approaches,” she explained. “I want to work with schools to create a more healing atmosphere so by the time students are in eighth grade, they feel they have the support and skills built up to get through high school, graduate and continue on in life.”

When the academic year is over in June, White will remain with the Cities Project as a paid staff member.

She credits her professors at Dominican University with laying the groundwork for her interest in helping adolescents overcome trauma.

“The faculty have supported me by making me confident in my role and helping me better help the kids,” she said. “Just by being supportive and by this opportunity existing, Dominican has helped me.”