CCAPS Students Win President's Student Leadership and Service Award

Not one, but two CCAPS students won the President's Student Leadership and Service Award this year. This honor is awarded to students who demonstrate exceptional leadership and service to the University of Minnesota and the community. The award is a collaboration between the Office of the President, Office of Student Affairs, the U of M Alumni Association, and Student Unions and Activities.

Health Services Management student Emma Flynn (see story below) serves as a student senator representing the CCAPS student body. She meets every semester with CCAPS Dean Bob Stine to share student experiences and discuss any concerns, especially in the time of COVID. She has worked diligently to research the creation of a CCAPS Undergraduate Student Board in partnership with college leadership. Emma was a mentee in our first CCAPS Mentor Program and provided invaluable constructive feedback. Her mentor was located outside of Minnesota, and she showed great initiative and responsibility by taking her learning experience into her own hands. Emma also participated in two mentee orientations, projecting optimism and articulating her own areas of growth while in the program.

Integrated Behavioral Health student Alejandra Rodriguez Wheelock (see story below) collaborated with local agency Hubbs Center for Lifelong Learning to create a support group to address the mental health needs of under-served populations. She facilitated an eight-week support group that focused on teaching coping strategies to work through group members' grief due to unemployment and other losses associated with the pandemic. Because of the success and positive feedback from members, Alejandra will be implementing the group again, as well as looking into expanding the program to other agencies. Additionally, Alejandra engages in advocacy and training work with FamilyMeans Center for Grief and Loss.

Making a Difference through Mentorship

Mentorship presents a win-win opportunity. Mentees gain hard-won, valuable insights from working professionals, and mentors get the gratification of giving back to those following in their footsteps.

Last year, the College of Continuing and Professional Studies (CCAPS) started its mentor program to provide these win-win opportunities for our students and alumni. The launch of this new initiative took place in fall 2019, well before the COVID-19 pandemic set in, so participants in the program were not aware they’d need to adapt to a purely virtual meeting arrangement during the second half of their mentorship. Fortunately, through Zoom meetings and phone calls, mentors and mentees were able to connect and develop strong professional relationships.

Forging Lasting Professional Relationships

Emma Flynn

Emma Flynn had a great experience with her mentor. She remembers seeing the email about the new CCAPS Mentor Program and thinking to herself, “Why wouldn’t I do this?” Flynn’s goal is to one day work in bioethics, a competitive field with an unconventional health care path. She hoped that, through a mentorship, she could gain insight and confidence from someone who had chosen an unconventional path, too. Flynn found what she was looking for through her mentor. 

“I was matched with Gabriel, who has a background in public health and anthropology. He’s worked in the public, nonprofit, and private sector, so he’s been all over,” Flynn says. “Gabriel helped me fine-tune my resume, and we talked a lot about networking. He helped me get more confident in those skills, knowing that I wasn’t looking to apply them in the expected way.”

The two met more frequently through a mix of Zoom appointments and phone calls as virtual job fairs started up. Flynn asked a lot of broad questions to soak up her mentor’s wisdom. “Most of my questions were about his experiences and how he saw them translating to my situation, rather than him telling me exactly what I should do. For example, I’d ask if there was ever a time when he was uncomfortable in a networking situation? What did you do? Can you give me tips for navigating job fairs? Things like that, so it ended up being more storytelling than a Q&A session.”

A Rewarding Experience

The first cohort in the CCAPS Mentor Program wrapped up at the end of spring semester, yielding great experiences all around. “I learned a lot and gained a lot of confidence, as well as validation that my resume is in a really good place,” Flynn says. “I know how to talk about my strengths rather than muddling through them as I might have before. I think the mentorship program helped me be more comfortable in general with what networking and connecting with people can really be and how reciprocal it can be.”

For many participants in the CCAPS mentorship program, the relationships forged will go on—well beyond a LinkedIn connection. These win-win opportunities among students and alumni have the capacity to last throughout their careers. 

Learn more about how you can get involved in the CCAPS Mentor Program

Tackling Grief and Job Loss

Three weeks after Alejandra Rodriguez Wheelock arrived in the United States from Guatemala, she got into a head-on collision with a truck. She was rushed to the emergency room. For weeks after the accident, she received physical and psychological therapy. She was a teenager at the time, speaking her nonnative language in an unfamiliar country. Her entire life had been turned upside down, and the doctors told her she was just depressed.

What she was really experiencing, she recalls, felt more like “an existential crisis.” “I decided to go into the field of mental health in order to become the counselor that I needed when I was 17.”

Connecting with an Expert

Alejandra Rodriguez Wheelock

Rodriguez Wheelock emerged from the trauma stronger and more determined. She earned a BA in philosophy and psychology, with a concentration in neuroscience from Grinnell College in Iowa. While searching for a graduate program to further her training, she came across a radio interview with Fiyyaz Karim, advisor and faculty member for the MPS in Integrated Behavioral Health and the MPS in Addictions Counseling programs.

“He was talking about grief, and I thought, this man knows what he’s talking about. I have questions. I want to learn from him.”

She contacted Karim and told him that she would be in town visiting her then-fiancé, Tristan Aschittino, in Minnesota. “After talking to Fiyyaz, I knew I wanted to go to the U. I wanted to be in his office and pick his brain,” she says, laughing.

Rodriguez Wheelock enrolled in the IBH program and moved to Minnesota. She didn’t waste any time diving into the field. She became a research assistant in the U of M School of Nursing. And she read Karim’s doctoral dissertation, which focused on the psychological effects and grieving process surrounding job loss.

Fiyyaz Karim

“Marginalized groups often face sociocultural and systemic barriers, like implicit bias and microaggressions, in job search and job reentry,” Karim says. “They may also encounter different kinds of -isms: ageism, sexism, classism, etc. On top of the grief and loss of unemployment, those areas pose different challenges for this group.”

“We have one of the highest racial disparities in unemployment in the country,” Rodriguez Wheelock adds. She thought it was “incredibly important” to tackle these issues in the Twin Cities.

A Project Takes Shape through the Acara Challenge

When Rodriguez Wheelock saw the poster advertising the University’s Acara Challenge, she knew she had found the perfect opportunity to start fleshing out Karim’s ideas. She approached him about developing a workshop that would help people of color deal with the effects of job loss.

The Acara Challenge is a campus-wide annual competition to fund student changemakers who are developing solutions to address social and environmental challenges.

Job loss, though not as tangible as losing a loved one, Rodriguez Wheelock explains, is still a real loss. “When you lose your job, you lose a part of your identity. You are grieving the loss of multiple aspects of yourself, both of how you view yourself and how others view you."

“We know that in general, grief and loss are taboo and very stigmatized,” Karim says. “That impacts whether or not people will seek out help. If they are seeking help, they’re going to individuals within their community, like a cultural or spiritual leader or healer. In some cultures there is not even a word for grief, bereavement, or mourning, so they may not even respond to the word.”

Illustration of group of people around a table with one person a different color


To address some of these issues, Rodriguez Wheelock’s pilot program would embed grief and loss counseling into practical skills training (specifically GRE workshops) to make it more accessible.

In preparation for the Acara Challenge presentation, Karim guided her through the development of metrics and details like target population, budget, timeline, and workshop structure. She presented her program virtually in March of this year and took home the Gold Award, which provides funding for up to $5,000 to assist in piloting her proposal.

Preparing for the Future

“We never envisioned this when we started this project,” Rodriguez Wheelock says of the rise in unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “We were just thinking about the need for more employment resources for marginalized communities. This is a totally new game now.”

She is exploring running her workshops via Google Hangout or telehealth options. She is also considering waiting until people can meet in person, as “the long-term effects of unemployment will be here long after the pandemic.”

One silver lining to the stay-at-home order is the opportunity to see her husband during the day. He is an essential worker and is gone during the night when Rodriguez Wheelock is asleep.

Abstract illustration of two multicolored people talking

She also maintains a healthy perspective through her work with elderly patients at the School of Nursing and terminal patients through her volunteer work at Family Means. Being close to death, she says, has in some ways made her a happier person. She feels that it has improved her relationships and freed her to live the life she wants.

“I’m really clear about what I can and can’t control. I understand that all the other decisions I made before this were made with the information I had at the time, and I’ll continue to make decisions based on the information I have.”

The information she has, and can now share with others, is the type of information she could have used as a young international woman in that hospital room years ago.

“I did not understand what being a minority was until I came to the US. It is important to me to create a place where I will eventually raise a family, a place I call home, a place that is inclusive for me and for everyone.”


Original illustrations were created by Alejandra's sister, Gabriela Rodriguez Wheelock, for this project.