- Dreamer Girls Project Is a ‘Dream Come True’ For YSPH Professor
Assistant Professor Ijeoma Opara, MPH, PhD, had wanted to create a healthy support network for Black teenage girls since she joined YSPH in 2021. But her vision actually goes back much farther.
“I conceptualized the Dreamer Girls Project 12 years ago after my father died,” said Opara, a faculty member in the department of social and behavioral sciences and founding director of the Substances and Sexual Health Lab at Yale. “I wanted to create a program just for Black teen girls where they can receive support from older peer-like mentors, gain exposure to careers, foster sisterhood, and be empowered to take control of their health, including mental and sexual health.”
Opara’s vision manifested itself in other ways at first, beginning with a 2019 research initiative called The Dreamer Girls Project, which is funded by a pilot grant through the Research Education Institute for Diverse Scholars program. The project focused on strength-based approaches to prevent HIV/STIs and drug use among Black girls. But it wasn’t until Opara came to YSPH that her dream for the program was finally realized.
For two days in late July, two groups of Black teenage girls from New Jersey—30 from East Orange, 20 from Paterson—toured the Yale campus to see for themselves that college life can be a reality, not something that’s out of reach and left to the realm of dreams and wishes.
“The highlight of the visit for me was when I overheard one of the teen girls whispering to her friend, ‘I want to go to Yale now,’” Opara said. “It brought me so much joy to hear that. I remember being a young Black girl from Jersey City, and never having the opportunity to even dream of attending or working at an institution like Yale. My goal for this trip was for the girls to see themselves here, not to be intimidated, and to aspire to be here if they want to.”
Opara said that during one group’s pizza lunch, the girls told her that Yale was the best campus tour they’ve attended. “They were also inspired to see me and to be around such a young-looking Black female professor,” she said. “Another girl mentioned that she never thought Yale would be an option for her but now, she wants to work hard to be a part of the Yale community. She intends to apply for Yale for undergrad and would like to be a part of my lab’s youth advisory board and other youth-engaged activities.”
After touring campus, Opara spoke to the girls about the field of public health and how they, too, could further their education at Yale.
“You work hard, you study—these students here are not smarter than you,” Opara said. “They’ve just had access; they’ve had more opportunities. But I’m here as a representative to show you can do this. And I’ll do all I can to make sure that every one of you, if you want to be at Yale, you will be at Yale in some capacity.”
While the tours were primarily for high school students planning for college, some of the participants were college students considering transfers.
“Yale has always been my dream school, but due to circumstances, I was unable to attend here,” said Nessa Nnze Eze. “I am now considering transferring [to Yale] and I feel like the Dreamer Girls Project … will benefit not only the people of Yale, but urban communities who are part of it.”
Funcia Jean-Louis, a rising senior at George Washington University, said she met Opara last year at a youth workshop she attended as part of the East Orange Summer Work Experience Program. She was so impressed that she became involved in local public health programs.
“I knew she was in a profession I feel like I was interested in studying, so I reached out to her and got to have a firsthand experience in working with girls in the Paterson area and East Orange area about health preventions, substance use, and things like that, something I identified with,” Jean-Louis said. “Just coming back today to see the program … was very inspiring, just because I know there’s just so much potential in East Orange, and just giving them opportunities like this, to go out there and branch out, it’s very fundamental at this time.”
The East Orange officials who accompanied the girls on the tour were likewise impressed.
“Today was important because we saw students that had never been on college campuses before … and through this experience, they shared that this is attainable,” said Kelly Williams, director of educational support services and parent relations for the East Orange School District. “It doesn’t matter what ZIP code, it doesn’t matter what family you were born into—college access is readily available for all students, no matter where you come from, what gender, etc. And so this was important.”
“Just the excitement and awe of the students filled my heart today,” said LaDonna Johns, manager of the Mayor’s Office of Employment and Training for the city of East Orange. “It’s so wonderful to let our students know that they, too, can achieve the goal of attending a university like Yale, that they’ve had a chance to look and see up-close all the buildings, the African American presence in some of the buildings … it’s just been a wonderful event.”
These were the first two Dreamer Girls tours, and Opara said there will be more. She’s already gearing up for the next one.
“I am working out the details with my community partners but as long as I am at Yale, Black teen girls will have a presence here,” she said. “Organizing these tours, plus lunch and meetings, does take a lot of time and I am grateful for my staff and students for their help. I am planning the next private campus tour for some time in fall ’22, and I hope to organize these tours at least once each semester.”