ADP Student & Alumni Profiles: Alexis Contreras and Alexandria Grant

by John Conroy

Alexis Contreras, who graduated from the Applied Developmental Psychology (ADP) master’s degree program in April 2015, initially became interested in working with youth and learning how to foster their development through helping at an after-school program in Utah as an undergraduate. “The program was very inspirational, as I had several students that were faced with numerous obstacles and were still able to succeed,” said Contreras. “I understood that these students had needs, and I loved facilitating their achievements and enjoyed seeing the excitement on their faces, as they were able to accomplish things they never thought were possible.”

After researching the School of Education online and meeting with program director Amanda Hirsch, Contreras chose to focus on both youth work and behavioral health, which are two of ADP's four concentrations. “Youth work focuses on the after-school aspect that I really appreciate. And behavioral health allows me to reach kids who have problems in and out of school to help them succeed in life,” said Contreras.

From the beginning of her time at the school, Contreras had a good experience with both faculty members and other students. “I met a group of women at orientation, and we became friends throughout the program by leaning on each other and building off our ideas,” said Contreras. “It’s a really great group learning experience, and the professors facilitated that by asking about our goals, wanting us to succeed, and knowing what our limits were. It’s really important for ADP students to ask for help from professors because they are such great resources.”

For her second year of the program, Contreras worked on her Capstone Project at the STAR-Center, which serves teens at risk for suicide, depression, and anxiety (and which was started by Department Chair and Professor Mary Margaret Kerr in 1989). “The capstone is a community-based learning experience and supposed to culminate what we learned throughout the last year and a half as our final project,” said Contreras. “I was able to apply what I learned in class, specifically with understanding and then teaching typical development to parents. I was also able to implement evidence-based practices into my project, in order to ensure readiness at the STAR-Center, validity in the information I was providing, and the sustainability of my project.”

As far as the Capstone Project itself, Contreras focused on getting parents more involved with the once-a-week parent groups, which were not typically well attended. She attempted to advertise her parent groups to encourage more of them to join, as well as using the opportunities to provide information and talk about what STAR has to offer for parents. “There were a lot of difficulties, which was expected, but it was really good because I provided me the opportunity to learn and evolve my project,” said Contreras. “We had really good responses from the group, and overall the Capstone Project enhanced my experiences with the program through giving me real-life opportunities.”

Contreras is currently serving as the program director and clinical supervisor for the Idaho Learning Center & Academy, a developmental disability agency that serves children ages 3-17, as well as adults. She works specifically with children 3-6 years of age at the Idaho-based center, which also provides educational services for families including family training, interdisciplinary training, family education, and crisis supports.

She has also been able to continue the work she started at the STAR-Center. She said, “Several people that I have encountered since graduating have requested my work and are interested in the project that I have created.” Her next step is earning a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

While an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, Alexandria Grant was offered the opportunity to be a student worker at The Children’s Institute Day School, where she worked with children with special needs in its autism support center. “I absolutely fell in love with that space. I was happy to go to work every single day,” said Grant. “I knew that was what I wanted to do, and a coworker actually told me about the School of Ed’s Applied Developmental Psychology (ADP) program.”

Grant began the two-year ADP master’s degree program in fall of 2014, and was immediately surprised by all the support she received from faculty. “The faculty understand that we have great innovations and ideas, and they really want us to pursue those ideas and have all of the resources that are available to us. I even got my current job because one of the faculty members thought I would be a good fit and reached out to the site.”

She also receives emails on an almost weekly basis about openings in the field, as well as for writing services, professional development, and networking. “The main goal is to get you to succeed and create this network of support that really helps you to be a great professional when you leave here.”

Grant is preparing for her second year of the program and its year long, community-based internship experience known as the “capstone project,” which begins for her in fall 2015 at RESPOND (Residential Enhancement Services, Planning Opportunities for a New Direction), a program through Allegheny County Health Department and the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. “You have this opportunity to choose a site where you create some type of permanent project,” said Grant. “So you are giving to that site but also learning in the process as you take everything you have learned in the classroom and applying it to a real-world setting.”

After graduation, Grant is interested in working for a behavioral health consulting team and working with kids with emotional and behavioral disorders. She said, “Something that is very important to me is creating behavior plans for different organizations, whether that be a crisis center or a school, so they have the developmentally appropriate data and evidence behind these interventions in order to implement them. I feel comfortable going into the job market because the University of Pittsburgh has provided me with an opportunity to not only learn about all these things that affect children but also to take that knowledge and apply it to my profession.”