During our commencement ceremonies, Alliant President Andy Vaughn shared stories of students who overcame great adversity on their road to the commencement stage. These are their stories.
PsyD in Clinical Psychology
“Watch me. Bet me.” That can easily be described as Ivy Kensinger’s tagline. Ivy has been declared the world’s most injured person to have survived their injuries. During her undergraduate studies, she suffered an accident that sent her plunging off the side of 150-foot cliff. When her parents arrived at the hospital after this accident, they were told that she had a one percent chance of living beyond a few more hours. If Ivy had heard this and would have been able to speak, she likely would have said, “Watch me. Bet me.”
Through years of hospitalization. Through wheelchairs and walkers. Through air tanks and injections during class. Through being told that pursuing a graduate degree was beyond her physical capabilities. Ivy persisted. She kept saying, “Watch me. Bet me.” When asked what kind of person would undertake a doctoral program while enduring so many critical health issues, Ivy responded, “The kind of person who refuses to have her fate dictated to her.” In fact, Ivy’s doctors have stopped giving her prognoses, because when she is told that she cannot do something, she responds with—you guessed it, “Watch me. Bet me.”
So today, Ivy’s mantra of “Watch me. Bet me.” takes on a new meaning. Today we will watch Ivy walk across this stage to receive her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology after being told she would never walk again. And today we are betting on Ivy to continue defying all odds and overcoming any adversity she faces.
Today, Ivy, we are watching you, and we are betting on you.
Jeryl Wilford was arrested at ages 13, 19, 21, and 26. After numerous traumatic experiences, including the death of his eldest sister—Kafi, the first attorney in his family—and the murder of his childhood friend, Tristen, Jeryl was unknowingly suffering from psychological conditions that drove him through the legal system time and time again. After today, Jeryl will be even more deeply involved in the legal system, but in a completely different way—today, he is receiving his Juris Doctorate and will be taking the next step on his journey to becoming an attorney.
Jeryl’s childhood was not easy, and nor was his path to this commencement stage. At 21, Jeryl was facing the possibility of up to five years in prison. In the wake of this, his parents helped him retain an attorney who recommended him to undergo psychological evaluation. The psychological evaluation found that he was suffering from Major Depressive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, as well as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And in 2014 he was diagnosed with ADHD.
Facing the daunting task of managing treatment for mental health issues that he has dealt with for a majority of his life but has only known about for the past few years has been a phenomenal challenge. But, Jeryl has faced this challenge head on and today, he is not only receiving his JD, he is also working on his first book titled Conviction—a title which speaks to the adversity that he has faced, while also speaking to the persistence he has used to overcome that adversity.
Jeryl plans to give back to his community not only through his career in law, but also dreams of establishing a brand of charter schools in underserved communities, so the students who attend these schools can have a head start in life and avoid being on the wrong side of the legal system. We believe that the students who attend these schools will have Jeryl as an example of what one can achieve through determination, notwithstanding the severity of one’s circumstances. And that you can do it all while also pursuing higher education.
Teaching Credential and MA in Teaching
James Jackson nearly didn’t make it to the commencement stage today, in fact, he almost didn’t make it into the classroom at all. James experienced some of the most difficult obstacles that international students often face. Not all American universities are equipped to handle the diverse needs of international students. The simple differences between countries’ educational systems and grading conventions can sometimes become a hurdle in an international student’s journey. For James, this nearly caused him the opportunity to earn his teaching credential and Master’s in Teaching.
James nearly died of blood poisoning and later had a tumor removed—all during his undergraduate years in England. These medical challenges took a toll on his education, and there were some classes that he couldn’t finish from the hospital. Those classes were reflected uniquely on his transcripts, but those transcripts didn’t quite translate well for some universities. After months of back and forth, months of trying to document that he, indeed, had his bachelor’s degree, months of—with a letter from his neurosurgeon—explaining why his GPA was impacted by having to re-take classes, James began to see his dream of becoming a teacher vanish before his eyes. Yet he persisted. And his path of persistence brought him to Alliant.
Today, James graduates with his teaching credential, his Master’s in teaching, and a 3.94 GPA. And there are so many students that will benefit from James’ determination, from his willingness to face adversity head on, and his refusal to have his dream put on hold. A nearly fatal case of blood poisoning couldn’t stop him, a brain tumor couldn’t stop him, and—today—we are betting that nothing can stop him, and we can’t wait to see how he leads and inspires his many students as a phenomenal teacher.
PhD in Clinical Psychology
Last year, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Houston, Texas, leaving a cacophony of grief, loss, and devastation in its wake. Brittany had recently moved to Houston and was in the first year of her internship with the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department when she experienced one of our nation’s most devastating natural disasters. In the midst of the fear and disbelief, what Brittany didn’t allow to take root was helplessness, and that is when she says her training kicked in.
Her apartment and internship site were located only a few blocks from the George R. Brown Convention Center, where over 10,000 of the community’s most affected victims took shelter. So, everyday—when she wasn’t counseling juvenile detainees, some of whom didn’t even know if their families were ok—Brittany spent her time at the shelter assisting and counseling her neighbors from cot to cot.
Brittany said she had a choice; “I could have just locked myself in my apartment and been scared—but this fire lit in my soul—I knew that a few blocks away there were thousands of people suffering, I knew I chose a helping profession for a reason and, in that moment, I just found a different level of humanity.”
Brittany describes her experience with Harvey and its victims as “incredibly humbling.” We call it the prime example of how our students use their education to transform their communities, and how they can transform their adversity into impact.
PsyD in Marriage and Family Therapy
Saad is from the United Arab Emirates. He comes from a conservative Muslim family. He grew up in a society in which love between a man and another man is illegal. And he spent a significant part of his life struggling with his identity as a gay man. This struggle continued through his educational journey here at Alliant, a journey which was fraught with guilt, self-doubt, denial, and—most poignantly—the desire for transformation.
But, Saad’s transformation was far beyond what he had expected. He expected to transform himself into somebody who he is not. He thought that if he tried hard enough, he could transform what he saw as an affliction into a more socially acceptable version of himself. He sought help from a clinical psychologist, and when that didn’t work, he turned to conversion therapy. As Saad puts it, “I wanted to change so bad, yet I knew that I couldn’t—I knew it was scientifically impossible.” But not only did Saad change—he became an agent of change.
Today, Saad is walking across this commencement stage as a man who has learned to accept and love himself as he is, and as someone who has taken his adversity and transformed it into impact. For his doctoral dissertation, he conducted the first ever study in the UAE that addressed the mental health needs and available resources for the nation’s LGBTQ community. And after receiving his PsyD in Marriage and Family Therapy today, he is returning to the UAE to transform the public mental health field into a field that provides accessible, ethical, and competent care to members of the LGBTQ community. He is dedicated to ensuring that he can help those who are facing the painful struggle that he has faced.
Saad says, “I know that there is a risk. There is always going to be stigma, but at this point I don’t care—I know myself, I know who I am. I started my graduate education with the belief that I am Muslim, and I am never going to be ok with being gay. If I was able to break through that and aspire to make change, I’m sure I can help a lot of other people have a similar experience. Because of my personal struggle, and because I underwent a transformation in my program, I want to dedicate myself to the LGBTQ community and their struggle in my home country.”
Saad stands as the perfect example of the transformational power of adversity. He overcame and will help others overcome. He embodies Alliant’s vision of An Inclusive World Empowered by Alliant Alumni. And we could not be more proud, or more thoroughly inspired, by his journey and his impact.
PsyD in Clinical Psychology
During the first year of her doctorate program, Deidre’s 18-year-old son—Kody Ryan Cook—was murdered while sitting outside of an ice cream shop. A college freshman majoring in psychology who dreamed of becoming a psychologist himself, Kody was Deidre’s driving force in pursuing her Doctorate. After earning her master’s, Kody encouraged his mother by telling her, “Keep going, go all the way, we can do this.” And while it may seem unfathomable to continue pursuing a doctoral program in the wake of such grief and devastation, Deirdre did keep going, she did go all the way, and today she is receiving that Doctorate.
Through the loss, through the process of rebuilding her family, through the court appearances and legal process of bringing her son’s killers to justice—through it all—Deidre persisted. Not only did she persist, she took her experience and transformed it into advocacy.
One of the men who murdered Deidre’s son was a juvenile and one was an adult, leaving her to navigate both the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. Of course, neither system was easy to navigate, but she found that the juvenile justice system was so fundamentally flawed when it came to protecting the rights of secondary victims, the families of victims, that she knew she had to do something about it. So, she changed her dissertation topic.
Her dissertation explored changes to the juvenile justice to ensure that the rights of victim’s families will be expanded and protected. “This is how laws get changed,” Deidre says. “Research is vital, and I wanted to contribute to the knowledge base that we use to change these laws. There was a time when victim’s families had no rights whatsoever, now that we do, those rights are still being violated, and I want to help change that.”
Deirdre took her grief and transformed it into advocacy. She took her adversity and transformed it into impact. She earned her doctoral degree while facing one of the most daunting experiences imaginable. And, even after he was gone, she kept true to her son Kody’s encouragement of “keep going,” “go all the way,” and “we can do this.” So, while Kody is not physically here with us, Deidre Cook is crossing this stage and receiving her doctoral degree today in his honor. Today, we honor Kody Ryan Cook, and we honor Dr. Deidre Cook.
PsyD in Clinical Psychology
In 2005, Daija experienced the homicide of her brother. In 2010, she experienced a sexual assault. In 2013, she began experiencing her first symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as Lupus. And in 2015, she experienced the homicide of her significant other, or as she explains it, “The Jenga block that made her tower fall.”
Daija’s tower came crumbling down during her first semester at Alliant. In sifting through the rubble, she sought therapy and was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. She faced these diagnoses with the same resilience that she employed in facing the many obstacles she had previously faced— with the following mantra: “Don’t let your circumstances dictate your outcome.”
This is a mantra she finds herself using with her clients and patients in her practica and internships. Daija says, “We all have obstacles we will have to overcome. What I went through wasn’t for me, but it was to help other people—everything that I’ve been through has allowed me to have more empathy, and—after everything that I have gone through—my empathy runs deep.”
Not only did Daija refuse to allow the adversity she faced to keep her from this commencement stage, she used her experience with adversity to shape the impact she is making as a student of clinical psychology, and the impact she will make as a clinical psychologist.
Daija’s brother was an African American man who used his education to give back to his community. He was profiled within that community, and he was murdered in a racially-motivated homicide. After this devastating loss, Daija found that when a black man is murdered, it is far too often assumed that his life was taken because he was involved in some criminal element, and she refused to allow these assumptions to stand. So, she dedicated her dissertation to revolutionizing the way that African American men in the forensic population are psychologically assessed, diagnosed, and treated.
Daija plans to build upon her dissertation and establish a more culturally-sensitive psychological assessment measure. She plans to put an end to clinical stereotypes. She plans to ensure that never again will an “assumption” brand a slain African American man as a criminal, and that no “assumption” will ever again send a mentally-ill African American man to prison instead of a mental health facility.
Today, Dr. Daija Foster stands as the prime example of what one can accomplish when they transform their adversity into impact. Impact in their communities, impact their professions, and impact in our society as a whole.