Spotlight: Grad student counsels across cultures

BY NINA EARNEST | APRIL 21, 2011 7:20 AM

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Lauren Levy once worked in a 50-story building in New York City. Her cubicle, located on the 47th floor, overlooked Central Park. She had the job that many college students dream of.

But she gave it all up.

"I just found it wasn't personally meaningful to me," the 27-year-old said.

After volunteering with a rape-victim advocacy program as a group-therapy facilitator in Harlem, the Iowa City native returned to pursue a career in psychology — both at home and abroad.

Now, Levy wants to look at psychology from an international perspective. She said one of her goals is to be able to conduct therapy sessions in Spanish. Spanish-speaking populations, she said, are underrepresented in the mental-health field.

"The emotional context is different depending on language," she said.

She flew to Guatemala in the summer of 2009 to improve her Spanish. In the Central American country, where, she said, a large percent of the female population is oppressed, she found a new purpose.

By January 2010, Levy and three Guatemalan activists founded the nonprofit group Generando— "Generating." Many impoverished women in Guatemala need assistance after experiences with sexual and physical assault.

"We're educating women about their rights and guiding them through the system," Levy said.

She received an undergraduate degree in business and finance from the University of North Carolina, where she also competed as a long-distance track athlete. After graduating in 2005, she worked as an investment banker for three years at Bank of America in New York.

But she soon learned the lifestyle — complete with 80-, 90-, and 100-hour work weeks — was not her true calling.

Levy returned to Iowa City in 2008 to complete enough psychology courses at the University of Iowa to enter the Ph.D. program.

Priyanka Rao, who has known Levy since they attended West High School together, said the psychologist-in-training has found a niche that is often neglected in Iowa City and abroad in Guatemala.

"[Levy] pushes everybody else to think about those issues, too," the second-year medical student said.

Michael O'Hara, a UI psychology professor who has worked with Levy, said her relative fluency in Spanish is important because of the shortage of bilingual clinicians.

"It increases her ability to provide service to these women in their own language," he said.

And, he said, her "incredible" work in Guatemala reflects her energy, intelligence, and good judgment.

Friend and fellow doctoral student Allison Richards shared similar thoughts on Levy in an e-mail.

"[Levy] whole-heartedly gives to others … Lauren is a giver and uses her skills in ways that better those who are around her," Richards said.

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