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Dreamer Girls Project is a dream-come-true for YSPH professor

August 30, 2022
by Fran Fried

Yale School of Public Health Assistant Professor Ijeoma Opara had wanted to create a healthy support network for Black teenage girls since she first 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 (SASH). “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 project called The Dreamer Girls Project, which is funded by a pilot grant through the REIDS program. The project focused on strength-based approaches to prevent HIV/STIs and drug use among Black girls. But it wasn’t until she came to YSPH that her own dream for the program was finally realized.

For two days in late July, groups of Black teen girls and their chaperones boarded buses from their respective northern New Jersey cities – 30 girls from East Orange on July 25, 20 from Paterson on July 27 – and arrived to tour the Yale campus and 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 also 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.”

Opara chose East Orange and Paterson girls to participate in part because of her Jersey roots and in part because of ties she has built in both cities, working with leaders in both communities in developing youth substance use and HIV-prevention programs.

Jamila T. Davis, founder of the VIP Online Academy, which has helped thousands of students receive trade and entrepreneurial skills to prepare them for the workforce, is one of Opara’s community partners and works with the SASH Lab as a community research fellow. She put Opara in touch with officials such as Kelly Williams, director of educational support services and parent relations at East Orange Public Schools and the East Orange’s Summer Work Experience Program. They put together a list of more than 30 vaccinated Black high school girls, some of whom are applying to college this fall. In Paterson, Opara worked with partners Cristina Barnes-Lee, a community research fellow at Opara’s lab and director of the Paterson Youth Services Bureau; and Tenee Joyner, program director of Municipal Alliance for Prevention Programs, a substance abuse prevention program in Paterson. Some of the girls, part of the anti-violence group SANKOFA, were college students interested in learning about the transfer process, as well as Yale’s graduate programs.

The girls from East Orange toured the Old Campus, Sterling Library, Beinecke Library, residential colleges, and the Law School. Opara joined them and walked with them to YSPH. There, over a pizza lunch in the dean’s conference room, Opara explained what public health is (“Public health is the study of understanding disease and illness and how it impacts communities and the population overall”) and Davis sought their feedback.

Opara told the girls of her background growing up in Jersey City and also gave the girls cards to fill out if they were interested in pursuing public health as a field of study, or if they were interested in working with her lab.

“I think I met my first Black professor when I was in my PhD program, so that was literally more than 10 years after high school, so I never knew what it felt [like] to aspire to be a professor with a PhD and be Black and be a woman in this country,” she told the girls. “So, it means a lot to me to be in this position. But it was also important to me to bring you all here, so you can see that schools like this are attainable.

“You work hard, you study – these students here are not smarter than you,” she added. “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.”

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.' 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.

YSPH Assistant Professor Ijeoma Opara

While the tours were primarily for high school girls who are starting out in the college application process, 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. “So, to be able to take this trip, I feel, was mandatory, it was very much needed, even though I’m in college currently. I am now considering transferring here and I feel like the Dreamer Girls Project at Yale University will benefit not only the people of Yale, but urban communities who are part of it.”

Funcia Jean-Louis, who, like Nessa, came up from East Orange, is entering her senior year at George Washington University. She met Opara last year at a youth workshop she attended as part of SWEP [East Orange’s Summer Work Experience Program] and 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,” she said. “Just coming back today to see the program – the girls were in the same position I was in three years ago. It 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 – we had students that specifically had never been on Ivy League 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, but 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.”

Submitted by Fran Fried on August 26, 2022