Psych Major Speaks from Experience

Posted on April 25, 2023

Young woman stands in front of a colorful graffiti wall.

When students combine their personal passions and experience with education that supports their interests, a career with real impact awaits. At UNC Greensboro (UNCG), Senior Sirine Hijazi has found that perfect combination and she is already making an impact on a special community that once served her.

Newcomer Culture Shock

Young woman walks down a sidewalk in front of a brick wall with Newcomers School sign and graffiti of a pencil and globe.
Sirine Hijazi returns to the school she attended in 8th grade.

Doris Henderson Newcomers School (Newcomers) is a unique school in Guilford County which educates newly immigrated students in grades 3-12. Newcomers is intended to be transitional, serving each student for one year to prepare them to attend their home schools in the district. In that year, English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers provide lessons in traditional subjects like math, science and social studies, while providing focused English reading support and help with cultural assimilation.

Hijazi knows it well. Her family moved from Lebanon in 2016 and she completed eighth grade at Newcomers. Although she was a bright student, she remembers how intimidating it felt to arrive in a new country and navigate school when English was not her first language.

“Although my English was good, the culture was so different,” Hijazi recalls. “I didn’t know what I was doing. There weren’t any transition groups at that time, so my sister and I had to figure it out on our own.”

In Hijazi’s case, the challenge was character building. She finished high school with honors before pursuing a psychology degree at UNCG.

“I was only 17 when I graduated high school,” Hijazi explained. “In our culture, children stay close to their families, so I didn’t want to go far away for college. Instead, I enrolled at UNCG like my siblings before me.”

Pursuits of Psychology

She excelled academically, even with a heavy course load, double majoring in psychology and sociology with a concentration in criminology. In Hijazi’s psychology courses, she drew upon her challenges as a newly immigrated student to consider how different people process emotions and difficult situations. 

She was already matching her personal passions with her education when she learned about a volunteer opportunity with UNCG’s Psychology Clinic. Dr. Rosemary Nelson-Gray is a supervisor at the clinic, which is currently under contract to provide services to Newcomers School. The clinic is often in need of translation help, so it was kismet when Dr. Gray connected with Hijazi.

“I met Dr. Rosemary in the psychology lab. I remember telling her that I was from Lebanon and that I spoke Arabic,” recalls Hijaz. “Later, she told me she needed a translator for a Newcomers’ student. I told her that I was actually a graduate of Newcomers, so it just all connected.”

The clinic is manned by doctoral students supervised by faculty, and provides therapy to students who have been identified as at risk for mental health problems. For students who arrive from dangerous refugee situations or are recovering from traumatic transitions, this free therapy is essential. The clinic also offers transition workshops to ease students’ fears about leaving Newcomers to attend schools in their districts.

Common Ground 

Woman with UNCG name tag sits in a library with a young student (who we see from behind). Another  young woman sits off to the side.
Hijazi works with Dr. Rosemary Nelson-Gray at a session at Newcomers.

Hijazi earned course credit for her volunteer hours with Newcomers, but her primary reward was sharing her experience with immigrant students.

She began attending sessions as an interpreter for a teenage boy. Hijazi immediately recognized how he would look to her when he didn’t understand something.

“In the sessions, I can see that he is relying on me. It’s very fulfilling, because just a few years ago, I was in the same situation, but I didn’t have any support,” she says.

The boy had a traumatic move to the United States and is struggling with his English and cultural adjustment. Although he was skeptical that therapy would help, he began sessions with the clinic.

“Sirine has been a fabulous interpreter,” Dr. Gray explained. “It’s not only the language that she’s helping with, but she also serves as a cultural broker. After each session, she helps to explain the cultural significance of certain discussion topics, such as Muslim taboos like cigarettes and alcohol.”

Igniting a Passion 

Young woman sits in a library talking to someone in the foreground.

In addition to lending her cultural experience and language skills, Hijazi is getting experience in clinical settings and applying what she’s learned in her psychology courses. 

“I’m learning so much from the clinical psychology doctoral students just by sitting in during these sessions,” Hijazi says.

The experience has also opened her eyes to the lack of resources available to American therapists who treat Arabic-speaking clients. 

“There aren’t many resources that help to translate psychology terms in Arabic,” Hijazi explains. “If the translator is not studying psychology, they wouldn’t know certain words used in a normal therapy setting. But I’m in a unique position to understand them and find the best Arabic word for it.”

The experience has altered her career path towards clinical psychology. She has seen first-hand how her experience combined with her education can make a real impact on Middle Eastern clients seeking therapy.

Transition Workshops

A woman in the foreground stands to speak to a group of elementary aged students in a classroom.
Hijazi speaks to students about her transition from Newcomers to high school 6 years ago.

Hijazi also helps with transition workshops that the Psychology Clinic provides to Newcomers’ students who are preparing to attend their district schools.  

“The students don’t want to leave. Newcomers is like a safe nest for them, because everybody is new and everybody is struggling with English,” Dr. Gray explains. “Parents also worry about their children adjusting to new schools. They worry about being ostracized or bullied because they are from a different country.”

Doctoral students in the UNCG Psychology Clinic organize the transition workshops to ease the students’ fears about leaving Newcomers, and Hijazi is a key speaker in these group sessions.   

“The kids like listening to me talk about how I got through it,” Hijazi says. “They direct personal questions to me and I give them tips about how to make friends at their new school. My favorite tip is to compliment classmates. For some cultures, this isn’t natural, but in America complimenting a sweater or hair color or ability is a friendly conversation starter.” 

Impactful Connections 

Portrait of woman from waist up standing with trees behind her.
Hijazi looks forward to graduating with the Class of 2023.

Next week, Sirine Hijazi will walk across the stage at commencement with summa cum laude distinction. At UNCG, she has found academic accomplishment and a career path that connects with her passions and experience. 

She plans to attend graduate school for clinical psychology, but before that, she wants to continue her work at Newcomers and obtain a translator’s certificate. She’s come far in the seven years since she was a brand-new U.S. resident and Newcomers School student. And along the way, she has found her calling.

“A question that I always hear from students I work with at Newcomers is ‘You know what I’m talking about, right?’” Hijazi says. “It’s such a simple question. But I can answer without a doubt – ‘Yes, I’m pretty familiar with what you’re dealing with.’ It’s amazing to make a connection that can have such a positive impact.” 

Story by Becky Deakins, University Communications.
Photography by Sean Norona, University Communications.

Woman with UNCG name tag sits in a library with a young student (who we see from behind). Another young woman sits off to the side.

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