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Madeline Phipps

For international disaster psychology student Jessi Lee, internship opportunities define academic experience

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If you ask soon-to-be graduate Jessi Lee how she ended up at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP), she’ll give you a brief answer: “It was kismet!” A few years ago, the former New Yorker decided she had had enough of the East Coast and decided to move to Denver.

After working here for a year, she was drawn to GSPP’s master’s program in international disaster psychology (IDP). “I’ve always been interested in global public health, especially after working in South Africa during and after my time in college,” Lee explains. Her affinity for international living and experiences working in HIV prevention gave her a desire to deepen her intercultural knowledge.

“The IDP program focuses mostly on applying cultural competence in our field,” Lee says. “We’re always asking, ‘How do we be as trauma-informed as possible working with people of different backgrounds and different identities?’”

She has worked to answer that question through firsthand experiences with people from a variety of backgrounds while in the program. During her first year she worked with inmates at the Denver County Jail. Though it was Lee’s first time working with perpetrators of crime as opposed to survivors, she says the plight of many of her clients was eye-opening.

“I found it frustrating that a majority of the individuals who are incarcerated struggle with some form of mental illness, and they’re not getting the care they need,” she says. “Overall, working with the inmates gave me a different perspective on what the human experience is like and how a cycle of abuse affects someone’s life.”

Lee spent last summer interning for a nongovernmental organization in Serbia with a different client population—refugees. While there, she also worked with the organization’s staff. “We talked a lot about how they can create boundaries and make sure they are taking care of themselves while they do emotionally intensive work,” Lee says.

Throughout the final year of her program, Lee has interned with Denver’s Center for Immigrants and Immigration Services, an agency that serves victims of torture and asylum seekers. Her clients include people from all over the world, including those from Russia, Kenya and Burkina Faso.

To enhance the clinical side of her work, Lee also has worked with DU’s Colorado Resilience Collaborative (CRC), an initiative launched last fall to combat identity-based violence and radicalization. “With CRC, I’ve given presentations and workshops about how victims respond to violence and how recruitment into extremist causes happens to community partners at the federal, state and local levels,” Lee explains. Given the tense political climate of the last year, she says she is grateful for a space to engage with this research. “We are eager to blame an act of violence on one group or ideology, but many of those acts are similar in that they involve people not feeling heard and choosing to express their feelings in ways that are really harmful to other people.”

Though she’s had such varied experiences working with clients, Lee says that her classmates have played a large part in making the IDP program invaluable. “It’s been fascinating to be a part of this microcosm of a community with people who are learning and going through the same experiences that I am,” she says. “This program really challenges you to be introspective. Part of therapy is asking clients to live in discomfort; the program asks us to do that as well.”

Looking to the future, Lee knows that she will continue to pursue clinical work and get her counseling license, though she’s unsure about what population she would like to serve. Her varied experiences at IDP have come with one unexpected consequence: “I feel really passionate about a lot of things,” she says, “and it’s hard to choose!”

To learn more about Commencement at the University of Denver, please visit the Commencement website.