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First-generation grad beats odds to pursue PhD


May 05, 2011

When you’re one of only seven students out of 113 applicants to enter a nationally ranked Ph.D. program, it’s a safe bet that you’ve stood out during your undergraduate career. That’s the case for Dhannia Torres, a first-generation college student earning her B.S. in psychology through ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

This fall, Torres will move from ASU’s West campus to Tempe, where she’ll enter the doctoral program in counseling psychology offered by the School of Letters and Sciences. Her success at defeating the odds and gaining admission to this highly competitive program can be attributed to hard work, intellectual curiosity and a sincere desire to help others.

Torres, a Mexico City native who grew up in Phoenix, dove into university activities from the very start. She participated in a New College Pathways Summer Bridge Program as an incoming freshman. She was later chosen for the New College Peer Mentors program, assisting freshmen students during their transition to university life.

“Being a peer mentor has helped me develop as a leader,” Torres said. “I have been able to help many freshmen, and in turn I’ve learned from them.”

She also has learned about topics ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to physical affection in marital relationships through her work as a research assistant in New College’s Emotion, Culture, and Psychophysiology Laboratory. Torres’ involvement in the lab, under the direction of professors Mary Burleson and Nicole Roberts, started in her freshman year.

From the beginning Torres demonstrated maturity beyond her years, according to Roberts, who pointed to Torres’ work in screening potential participants for a study related to PTSD. “With virtually no formal clinical training, Dhannia was able to conduct thorough and sensitive assessments with respondents who reported incredibly painful experiences,” Roberts said.

Torres has played a key role in recruiting participants for a study led by Burleson that investigates potential influences of physical affection in marital relationships of Latino and non-Latino couples. “This is a challenging assignment because we have stringent entrance requirements for study participants and relatively extensive expectations for what they’ll do as they take part,” Burleson said. “Dhannia has been very effective in reaching out to community gatekeepers in both Latino and non-Latino settings, and coordinating the recruitment efforts of other research assistants.”

Torres said her work with Roberts and Burleson has been invaluable to her. “Learning how research works and the amount of energy it takes to launch a project and keep a study going is one of my best experiences as an undergraduate,” she said.

If her efforts in the lab weren’t enough, Torres also found time to serve in an internship with Chrysalis, a nonprofit organization that works with low-income perpetrators and victims of domestic violence. She credits that experience with expanding her ability to work with clients from a variety of backgrounds and helping her learn more about the dynamics of domestic violence.

Now it’s on to the counseling psychology doctoral program. “I look forward to the clinical, research and multicultural training I will receive in this program,” she said.

Contributed by Matt Crum