KINGSTON, R.I. – April 30, 2015 – Growing up in a mostly Mexican-American city in Texas, Amanda Ramirez wondered why some residents ended up in prison while others thrived in college and at jobs.
Ramirez turned that fascination with resiliency into an academic career, first at Curry College and Boston College and now at the University of Rhode Island, where she’s pursuing her doctorate in school psychology.
Her studies focus on multiculturalism in education – a field so important on college campuses today she recently won a prestigious minority fellowship from the American Psychological Association.
The grant, funded by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, allows the third-year graduate student to continue her work on the challenges minorities face in schools and communities – and the role parents play in their children’s success.
“I’m honored to receive this fellowship,” says Ramirez, 26, of Cambridge, Mass. “Not only is the fellowship highly competitive, it also gives me an opportunity to work with other scholars researching multiculturalism.”
Ramirez was raised in a Mexican-American family in San Antonio. Her parents were heavily involved in her school life, regularly collaborating with teachers and administrators on ways to improve her education and make sure she had a chance to go to college.
“Neither of my parents went to college, but they wanted me to have that opportunity,” she says. “I learned early on how important it is for parents, from all walks of life, to be involved in their sons’ and daughters’ education.”
Ramirez was a star student in high school, excelling in math and science and winning a full scholarship to Curry College in Milton, Mass., where she graduated in 2010 at the top of her class with a dual degree in criminal justice and psychology.
At first, she wanted to work for the FBI, but changed her mind after witnessing the struggles of at-risk youth. “I decided I didn’t want to catch criminals. I wanted to stop people from becoming criminals. I wanted to do prevention. This was my ‘eureka’ moment.”
She went on to earn her master of social work at Boston College and participated in the research project “Mommy and Me,” examining the importance of parental involvement among African-American and Latino immigrant mothers. She also co-founded the Graduate Pride Alliance, which provides support for LGBTQ students.
“I found that each cultural group has its own strengths that we should try to enhance,” she says. “It’s not one size fits all, especially when it comes to intervention. Psychologists need to be aware of the cultural implications of everything they do.”
URI was the only college Ramirez applied to because she wanted to work with Margaret Rogers, a school psychology professor whose research involves the experiences of multicultural students in all levels of education – and advocating for diverse groups.
“Professor Rogers is a great mentor,” says Ramirez. “As a student, I feel like she’s always there to support me and my research.” Rogers says she is “thrilled to learn about Amanda’s fellowship and tremendously proud of her successes.”
James Prochaska, a clinical and health psychology professor at URI and director of the Cancer Prevention Resource Center, has also influenced her. Prochaska pioneered the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change, an internationally acclaimed program that encourages people to change their behavior in stages to achieve better health.
His program is widely used in cancer prevention, as well as smoking, depression, alcohol and substance abuse, exercise and diet.
Ramirez says Prochaska’s ideas have been useful in her clinical work at the Rhode Island State Training School, a corrections facility for juvenile offenders. Ramirez credits Mary Clair-Michaud, a URI clinical researcher in psychology, with helping her apply Prochaska’s model to her studies with adolescents.
“The kids at the training school are just kids,” she says. “They’ve faced systemic challenges beyond their control like poverty, troubled families, struggling schools and peer pressure.”
The one-year fellowship allows Ramirez to continue her research on multiculturalism, parent advocacy and the experiences of undocumented young people. She will also work at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Mass.
“I’ve had some privileges in my life, but I’ve also witnessed the struggles of those around me,” she says. “Moving forward, I hope to make life better for the disenfranchised.”
Pictured above: Amanda Ramirez, 26, of Cambridge, Mass., who won a fellowship from the American Psychological Association to study multiculturalism in schools and communities. Ramirez is a third-year graduate student in psychology at the University of Rhode Island. Photo by Melissa Marcotte.