2016–2017 Alumni News & Events

LAS Outstanding Young Alumni Award

L-R: Luvvie Ajayi (BS'06) and Professor Wendy Heller. Luvvie received the LAS Outstanding Young Alumni Award on October 23, 2017 at the I-Hotel & Conference Center.

Ifeoluwa (Luvvie) Ajayi (BS, ’06, Psychology) knew she had finally made it when Oprah Winfrey rubbed her head. Ajayi had been selected for Oprah’s “SuperSoul 100 list,” and she was invited in June of 2016 to interview Oprah and the rest of the cast of “Greenleaf,” a TV show premiering on the Oprah Winfrey Network. “I told Oprah how I loved her character’s hair, and I mentioned that I had just recently cut my locks really short,” recalled Ajayi.” And then she suddenly grabs my head. It was like her anointing.”

Ajayi's multitude of fans have also annointed her as one of the most distinctive and popular bloggers in the country, with 500,000 readers every month, 272,000 likes on her Facebook page, and 187,000 followers on Twitter—and counting. What’s more, her New York Times best-selling book, “I’m Judging You,” released in the fall of 2016, is in development to be turned into a TV series, originally optioned by Shonda Rimes, best known as the creator and producer of the popular shows, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.” With such a record, it is no surprise that Ajayi is also a winner of the 2017 College of LAS Outstanding Young Alumni Award.

Ajayi was born in Nigeria with the name of Ifeoluwa, although she now goes by Luvvie, not to be confused with the Illinois football coach. When she was nine years old, her family uprooted and moved to Chicago for her older sister’s college education. But according to Ajayi, she thought at the time that they were simply leaving for vacation. She had no idea it was going to be permanent until she enrolled in a Chicago school. “It was absolutely a culture shock because it was the first time I had ever been the new girl anywhere,” she said. “I was coming from Nigeria where everyone is black, and here in Chicago most people at my very diverse school did not look like me.”

Then, in 2002, Ajayi came to the University of Illinois, where she majored in psychology and started blogging on a dare from her friends. “My college blog wasn’t popular or anything,” she said. “I wasn’t putting any effort into making it a thing. It was just a personal journal about being a student.”

Ajayi says the most important class that she took at Illinois was about black women in the U.S., taught by Jessica Millward, a former Chancellor's Postdoctoral Fellow. Ajayi would banter with Millward and crack jokes in class, but the course was also instrumental in opening her eyes to the contributions of black women in America. Ajayi also wrote an advice column for The Daily Illini from 2004 to 2005, covering such things as back-to-school blues, relationships, and time management. “It was just random advice,” she said. “Random” is a word she also applies to her current blog, which she says chronicles her “randomness and shenanigans.” The blog, “Awesomely Luvvie,” covers everything from pop culture and what’s happening in her life to travel and politics.

She started this new blog in 2006—the same year she graduated from the U of I and began work as a marketing coordinator for the nonprofit, Community Renewal Society. She wrote the blog in the evenings, but when she was laid off in 2010, “that’s when I was pushed to make the leap of faith I wasn’t going to make myself: working for myself.”

So she dove into blogging full-time, and it was a steady, but slow climb. “There’s no such thing as an overnight success,” she said. “You have to stick with it and build it. There are times when you think nobody is listening, but if you continue to do the thing you love, rewards can come.”

Ajayi’s rewards came as readership grew, and she caught the attention of TV producer, Rimes. Ajayi started doing recaps of the Rimes’ show, “Scandal,” and the producer took notice. “One day in 2014, Shonda Rimes tweeted that she was staying up to read my timeline as I tweeted about ‘Scandal,’” Ajayi said. “Wow, I thought, that’s beyond major! That’s when I really understood that she was paying attention and knew who I was.”

Ajayi has called herself everything from a troublemaker to a “professional shade thrower” because she tells it like it is—a common quality for Nigerians, she said. “The voice of my blog is authentic to who I am,” she said. “People who know me in real life hear my voice when they read my words. It’s very relatable and conversational.”

Ajayi also began the Red Pump Project in 2009—a national nonprofit that educates women and girls of color about HIV/AIDS. “When I was in college, I met somebody who told me she had 20 cousins who had been orphaned by HIV/AIDS in Malawi, and they all lived with their grandmother. It was one of those moments that woke me up,” she said, “because I didn’t know this was still such a problem.”

When a friend of hers (Karyn Brianne Lee) learned that one of her friends was HIV positive, they came together to ask other bloggers to talk about HIV and AIDS on March 10, 2009—and 135 bloggers answered the call. This led to the Red Pump Project, which asks women to wear red shoes every March 10—with red being the color of the AIDS ribbon and March 10 being National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Ajayi’s Red Pump Project also organizes educational events. For example, they partnered with the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to conduct HIV/AIDS educational workshops for 900 adults in 2015.

As Ajayi’s star continued to rise, she drew the attention of corporate sponsors, beginning with the clothing store, the Gap, which asked her to host a party for the launch of a new jeans line. She has also worked with McDonald’s, Netflix, HBO, and NBC. Chevy even sent her on a road trip in 2015 to talk about the new Camaro and share her experiences on social media.

Her book, “I’m Judging You,” came out in 2016, and she said, “It’s a book about why we all need to do better. So I thought ‘I’m judging you’ was very apt. We all need to do better in life, in social media, in fame, in culture. It’s a book about why we’re all ridiculous.”

As a psychology alum, Ajayi certainly puts her educational background to work in a unique way, analyzing the psyche of the culture through her many social media outlets. But she says that when she was sitting in Psych 100, she certainly never could have envisioned that blogging would become her career.

As she put it, “It’s all a beautiful surprise.”

Article by Doug Peterson

President Illinois Psychological Association

Dr. Laura Faynor-Ciha (BS'93) was installed as President of the Illinois Psychological Association (IPA) on July 1, 2017. Faynor-Ciha is a licensed clinical psychologist and has a private practice in Naperville, IL.

2017 Distinguished Alumni Award

L-R: Jill-Ellyn Straus; Wendy Heller, Professor & Head, Department of Psychology

The Department of Psychology honored Jill-Ellyn Straus, a distinguished alumna, at our awards program on Saturday, May 13, 2017. She was also the department's Commencement speaker in the Great Hall at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday, May 14, 2017.

Jill-Ellyn Straus earned her B.S. degree in Psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1979, and J.D. (1982) from the University of Denver College of Law.

Ms. Straus started at the 17th Judicial District Attorney’s Office in 1983 and retired from there in 2008, upon her appointment to the bench as a District Court Judge for the 17th Judicial District of Colorado.  As a prosecutor she specialized in crimes against children and juvenile delinquency.  She was a Chief Trial Deputy for eighteen years and trained professionals from many different disciplines on issues related to the investigation and prosecution of child abuse and neglect.

Ms. Straus acted as a consultant with the child protection team for the C. Henry Kempe National Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect, and was the prosecution representative on the State Child Fatality Review Committee for eighteen years.  As a lawyer and as a judge, issues of addiction, mental competency, insanity, mental illness, intellectual delays and deficits have been part of so many of her cases. The science of psychology has always been woven through her professional life.

2017 Lyle Lanier Lecture

Dr. Takao Hensch will present the Department of Psychology's 2017 Lyle Lanier Lecture on Monday, March 27, 2017, 4:00 p.m. at the Beckman Auditorium, 405 N. Mathews, Urbana, IL. The title of his lecture is "Power of the Infant Brain".

Summary of the lecture:

Early life experiences enduringly shape brain function, when neural circuits exhibit windows of profound plasticity then later stabilize. A biological basis for these "critical periods" has begun to emerge: the balance between excitation and inhibition drives onset timing, while molecular "brakes" actively limit rewiring thereafter. Manipulations targeting these processes are so powerful that individuals of identical chronological age may be at the peak, prior to, or past their plastic window. Thus, critical period timing per se is plastic. Strikingly, most of these regulators converge in and around pivotal inhibitory circuits which are particularly voulnerable in mental illness. Understanding their maturation and maintenance offers novel therapeutic insight into cognitive disorders and the potential to tap juvenile levels of plasticity throughout life--for better or worse.

Dr. Hensch is a joint professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School at Boston's Children Hospital, Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard's Center for Brain Science, and he currently directs the NIMH Silvio O. Conte Center for Basic Mental Health Research at Harvard. His research explores the mechanisms underlying critical periods of brain development, specifically, neural circuits sculpted by experience in infancy and early childhood.

The Department of Psychology would like to thank L. Gene and Catherine Lemon, and Lyle Lanier, Jr., for establishing the Lyle H. Lanier Fund in memory of Catherine and Lyle's father, Head of the Department of Psychology (1951-1959); Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (1959-1960)); and Provost of the Urbana-Champaign campus (1960-1972).

Alumna Receives Top Award From College

Dr. Elizabeth Pieroth received the 2016 LAS Alumni Achievement Award for her work to treat and reduce concussions in sports.

Elizabeth Pieroth is the first to point out that she is not gifted athletically. Growing up, her family nicknamed her “Grace” because of her lack of that quality in sports. But when it comes to protecting an athlete’s most important body part—the head—Pieroth is the go-to person for many athletic programs around the country, including major professional teams.

Today, Pieroth (BS, '88, psychology) is the concussion specialist for the Chicago Blackhawks, Bears, White Sox, and the Chicago Fire soccer team. She is a board-certified neuropsychologist and associate director of the sports concussion program in the NorthShore University HealthSystem, as well as a member of the Brain Injury Association of Illinois Board of Directors and the USA Football Heads Up National Advisory Committee. She also recently won the Excellence in Safety Award from USA Hockey for an educational program she developed.

Now, Pieroth can add another honor to the list—a 2016 LAS Alumni Achievement Award.

Although not an athlete herself, Pieroth said she always loved sports growing up in Chicago Ridge, Illinois.

“It’s hard to live around Chicago and not love sports,” she said.

She came from a football house, because her brother played the sport and her father was a referee for more than 30 years. Today, she lives in a hockey house, because her husband still plays, and both of her sons play hockey. (The oldest son also plays football.)

When Pieroth came to the University of Illinois in 1984, she was like a lot of other undergrads and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She wound up majoring in psychology because, as she said, “I knew I wanted to work in healthcare in some capacity.”

Then she found out about the doctor of psychology degree, “and it was a perfect fit, a combination of medicine and psychology,” she said. “It finally clicked for me.”

As part of her PsyD degree at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, she did a residency at the Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and Care Network in Chicago, working on the brain injury unit. There, she had her first exposure to sports-related concussions, although most of her patients had more severe brain injuries.

Her residency was followed by a fellowship at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, where her supervisor, Mark Lovell, was a concussion specialist. She arrived at the hospital in 1997, which also happened to be the first year of the National Hockey League’s concussion program.

Through Lovell, she started doing concussion work with the Detroit Red Wings, administering a baseline cognitive test to every single player on the hockey team. If a player wound up being concussed, Pieroth and Lovell would retest him.

According to Pieroth, the NHL was way ahead of its time in 1997 because the issue of concussions wasn’t the headline-grabber it is today.

“In 1997, it was the opposite of today,” she says. “We were begging people to pay attention to athletes’ heads. But many people said we’re making something out of nothing.”

After her fellowship, Pieroth returned to the Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, where she went back to doing work with patients who have severe brain injuries. But she also began to see more and more concussion patients because not many doctors did this kind of work at the time.

Soon, concussion patients became such a big part of her job that she went into private practice and primarily worked on concussions. In 2004, she became the concussion specialist for the Bears, followed by the Blackhawks in 2005, and the White Sox and Chicago Fire in 2011.  She also consults with many high school and small college athletics programs, and she served as the concussion specialist for Northwestern University from 2010 to 2014. (Good news: She remained an Illini fan, even during her Northwestern years.)

In 2012, she left her private practice to join NorthShore, where she now sees patients throughout the Chicago area.

“But the part I’m most passionate about is education,” she said.

A concussion is a brain injury that occurs at the cellular level, Pieroth explained. No definitive test can determine whether a person has a concussion or not, so doctors rely on symptoms. The most common symptom is a headache, with about 85 percent of concussed people reporting one.

However, she cautioned that people often get headaches when they hit their head, even if it’s not a concussion. Therefore, Pieroth looks for other symptoms, such as dizziness, fatigue, and mental fogginess. Some patients also have nausea or sensitivity to light and noise.

Concussion awareness is so high today that she often has to calm the fears of parents who might be waking their child every half hour during the night. She says if parents are going to do that, they might as well take the child to the emergency room and have a CT scan done to rule out a more severe injury. The reason for keeping someone awake is that a person with a head injury might later feel symptoms of a more severe problem, such as bleeding on the brain. If the patient is asleep, he or she might not notice the new symptoms.

Pieroth’s educational efforts answer the most common myths about concussions, such as that they always lead to unconsciousness (only about 10 percent do), and that patients must have complete cognitive rest.

“Patients who are told to do nothing usually show an increase in symptoms because they just sit around and think about their symptoms,” she said. “Research has shown that prolonged rest is not curative, and encouraging the appropriate return to both physical and cognitive activity aids recovery.”

Pieroth teaches these lessons for the Heads Up program, a health and safety program sponsored by the USA Football Advisory Committee. She also is on the U.S. Soccer Concussion Task Force and supported its recent policy changes. The task force recommended no heading of the ball in practice for players under 10 years old and limited heading for ages 10 to 14.

Pieroth is especially proud about creating “A Step aHead,” a joint education program with the Chicago Blackhawks, Athletico, the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois, and NorthShore. This program offers baseline neurocognitive testing to hockey players, and they emphasize education to the hockey community on many topics, including safe checking, equipment safety, and more.

In the meantime, her two young boys continue to play many sports because she says the fear of concussions should not keep any child from being active.

“We have an obesity problem in this country, and we need kids to be physically active,” she said. “For many kids, the only way they get regular exercise is through sports. So we need to be determining how to make these sports safer. Not only football, but all sports.”

Article by Doug Peterson

Connect with Psychology

Are you interested in hearing the latest department news, learning more about what the University is doing for wounded veterans, or learning how you can get more involved with department and Alumni Advisory Board initiatives? If you are, we hope that you will join us for an informational webinar on Thursday, September 15, 2016 from 12-1:00 pm (CST).

Wendy Heller, Professor and Head of Psychology, will be sharing some of the latest department news, and Professors Howard Berenbaum and Florin Dolcos, along with Christian Williams, a graduate student and veteran, will share the research they are conducting at the new Center for Wounded Veterans at the University. A Psychology Alumni Advisory Board member will also share the latest news about the board's initiatives and ways you can get involved.

To receive an Outlook invitation for the webinar please email Cheryl Berger at cberger@illinois.edu. You can sign up for the free webinar using the Skype or Dial In information here.

Join voice only by Desk Phone/Landline/US Dial In (Toll-Free) - 1-844-882-6682 Inline image, Participant Code 1223550342

Live Support IM Help telephone: 1-877-388-6623 

2016 Alfred M. Wellner Lifetime Achievement Award

Beth Rom-Rymer (PhD'86) is the 2016 recipient of the National Register's Wellner Lifetime Achievement Award.The award, named after the first Executive Officer, Alfred M. Wellner, PhD, is the highest honor bestowed on a Registrant by the National Register to commemorate numerous and significant contributions to psychology during a distinguished career. The National Register of Health Service Psychologists is the largest credentialing organization for psychologists. Established in 1974, the independent nonprofit organization is dedicated to improving healthcare by identifying psychologists who meet specific credentialing standards to consumers, healthcare organizations, and regulatory bodies.

Dr. Rom-Rymer is the recipient of many awards, including the Karl F. Heiser APA Presidential Award and APA Presidential Citation for Outstanding Contributions to the Field of Professional Psychology. She is a licensed psychologist with the clinical and forensic practice, Rom-Rymer & Associates, located in Chicago, IL.

Psychology’s “Hotdogger”

(Kelly Burger and co-driver on top of the "Bun Roof". Each year thousands of college graduates apply for twelve Oscar Mayer Wienermobile spokesperson openings and Kelly is the first Illini to hold this job.)

I graduated from the University of Illinois May 2015 with a double major in Psychology and English, and a minor in Secondary Education. As a "hotdogger" I represent Oscar Mayer and drive the iconic Wienermobile across the country for an entire year. Thousands of college grads apply for the Wienermobile Spokesperson job every year, but only twelve "lucky dogs" are chosen. More people have gone to space than have driven the famed Oscar Mayer Wienermobile! As a hotdogger I travel all across the country with the 27 foot long hot dog on wheels doing a variety of different events including parades, charitable functions, festivals, retail events and sporting events. I coordinate events, pitch and conduct media interviews, book hotels, and engage thousands of people a week. Hotdoggers essentially operate a public relations firm on wheels.

I started my tour across the "Hot Dog Highways of America" in June right after I graduated and so far I have traveled to 28 states. My co-driver and I travel to a new city each week where we get to explore the hidden gems across America. I am very thankful that I was able to receive such a well-rounded education at the University of Illinois that made me a standout candidate for this position. I relish" every moment that I have with this job. I am just so lucky to be doing such a fun and unconventional job right out of school and I want as many people to know about it as possible. It has truly been life changing for me and I am sure it could be the same for another lucky Illinois grad.

Do you have strong communications skills and love to travel? Submit your application to Oscar Mayer for consideration: Deadline - January 31.

2016 Distinguished Downstate Alumnus

The Honorable Jeffrey Ford received the inaugural 2016 Distinguished Downstate Alumnus Award from The Downstate Legal Society at the University of Illinois’College of Law in recognition of his long history of public service and commitment to reform. In 1991, Judge Ford founded the first DUI court in the country. In 1999, he established the Champaign County Drug court to break the cycle of recidivism. He also received the National Association of Social Workers Public Citizen of the Year Award (2013) and the Goldstein Award for Preeminent Contribution to the Drug Court Field from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (2014).

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