Alejandra Rodriguez Wheelock

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 experiencing, she recalls, felt 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.

“When you lose your job, you lose a part of your identity."

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.”

Update: Alejandra received a 2021 President’s Student Leadership and Service Award.

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