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McNair Scholar Researches Psychological Stress in Minneapolis Neighborhoods

December 20, 2017

Mary Onchiri

Mary Onchiri
Photo by Cullen Kobayashi, CLAgency student

“Research makes me feel like I’m actually making a difference in the world around me,” says Mary K. Onchiri, a senior in CLA. Studying psychology, family social science, and Spanish, Onchiri was one of twenty-two 2017 McNair Scholarship recipients. The program, which seeks to increase the number of underrepresented and first-generation college students earning doctoral degrees, consists of a 10-week research apprenticeship with a faculty member over the summer.

Under the supervision of Professor Richard Lee, Onchiri researched the extent to which social-environmental factors contribute to psychological distress in residents of certain neighborhoods as a function of community factors. In doing so, she examined survey results from four Minneapolis neighborhoods that indicated psychological distress and other indirect effects of discrimination, perceived safety, and community cohesion.

According to her presentation, while the correlation between social-environmental factors and psychological distress wasn’t significant for all of the neighborhoods surveyed, there were clear disparities in distress among Minneapolis neighborhoods. “The findings contribute to the community and policy makers’ understanding of local mental health disparities,” Onchiri says.  

One of the foci of Professor Lee’s research is to examine the unique racial and ethnic experiences of minority youth and adults and how they relate to their well-being. “I’m lucky to have found a mentor who matches my interests so closely,” Onchiri says. Lee gave Onchiri a lot of independence on her project. This freedom has significantly contributed to her growth as a researcher. “I had no idea how to get data from the county, clean the data set, or write a research proposal. Every step of the way was a new challenge,” Onchiri says. Nonetheless she was able to compile and analyze 3,323 survey responses to enhance her project.

Developing a Focus on Community

The McNair research project wasn’t Onchiri’s first attempt at trying to make a difference in a community. She spent a lot of time in her first two years as an undergraduate doing volunteer work. “I worked with CLUES (Communidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio), an organization for Latinos in south Minneapolis . . . I was mostly working with children and helping them with homework,” she says.

In addition to CLUES, Onchiri has volunteered with the local Native American community and has also worked as a residential camp counselor for TRIO Upward Bound, a college preparatory program that’s funded by the US Department of Education.

Beyond Minnesota

Onchiri has a history of making a difference abroad as well. In the spring of her sophomore year, she went to Ecuador through the Minnesota Studies in International Development (MSID) program in the Learning Abroad Center. There, in addition to honing her Spanish skills, she had an internship working on issues of children’s education and community development at Centro de Apoyo Integral-Las Tres Manuelas where she worked with two supervising psychologists.

“I did social work, domestic violence workshops, and psychological evaluations with some of the children, and went around schools, talking to children about their development. It was a great experience,” Onchiri says.

For the Future

Onchiri is currently visiting graduate schools while simultaneously making final touches to her research as she prepares to submit it to an academic journal. She intends to take a gap year before attending graduate school.

“I came into my undergraduate program not really knowing what I wanted to do. I feel like I’m leaving with a strong sense of purpose” Onchiri says. Before her experience abroad, Onchiri wanted to do more applied work with her psychology degree, such as counseling or social work. Now she hopes to becoming a professor.

“I don’t have any professors that look like me,” Onchiri says,  “I want to be that for other students--a woman who is a minority, specifically African American. I can do this too.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.