“Stress is not doled out equally, as we all know, and kids growing up in urban poverty have far more than their fair share,” says Kathryn Grant, a professor of clinical psychology, explaining the genesis of the Cities Project. 

”How does the stress inherent in a tough environment affect a child’s academic performance and social behavior? Why do a few thrive despite exposure to severe and chronic stress? If we knew the answers, could we design interventions that would ease the stress on the vulnerable kids? These are the questions behind the research and field work in the Cities Project.”

Initially, the project focused on identifying the variables that can help protect youth from the adverse affects of stress. “Interesting, we found that conventionally accepted coping strategies were not effective and could even exacerbate the problem,” says Grant. “For example, ‘change the problem’ works just fine if a child fails a math test and can talk to the teacher or if she has a fight with a friend but has the social skills to fix the relationship. But when the problem is gang violence, not so much. A kid has no power to fix that problem: You can’t fight a raging forest fire with a squirt gun.”

Through surveying and data analysis, Grant identified three factors that positively impact a child’s ability to cope effectively with stress: a personal strategy, connection to a supportive adult, and access to a protective site, such as home, school or church. Based on these findings, she received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop an intervention program that includes the use of DePaul students as one-on-one mentors and as community support staff for extracurricular group activities. Currently, 180 students, grades K-12 in three Chicago Public Schools (CPS), are enrolled in the project (90 are actively participating and 90 are on a wait list).

“Our graduate students get training in therapy and supervision; the undergrads learn how to work with kids and earn service learning credit,” says Grant.  “Also, studies show that in these kinds of activities givers gain as much as getters, not just practically but also emotionally. So, everyone wins.”

Her students agree.

Two-Way Street

“I love every part of working on this project,” says Caterina Salzano, a senior studying psychology. “My job as a mentor is to give my student consistent support:  I look forward to meeting with her every week. Having someone showing interest in you is motivating, and I’m here for her. In this project, I’ve had all types of experiences working with people, which is what I’m interested in. So, it’s prompting me to think about my future: Is this the kind of work I want to do when I’m done with my own education?”

Maher Budron also sees relevance to his own interests: “My experience as a mentor complemented my long-term academic objective, which is investigating the molecular underpinnings of psychological disorders that often face children living in urban poverty.” After he graduates, the senior plans to do research for two years on his path to becoming a physician-scientist. As a McNair Scholar, Budron says he can identify with the kids’ struggles and appreciates the value of mentoring. “It’s about giving the kids the skills to advocate for themselves, to gain some degree of agency and autonomy. In the Cities Project, we’re trying to teach the students that they can control some of their stressors—not all, but some. When they learn that, they have some power. In working with my student, I always asked him, ‘What do you think?’ Then, I listened. These kids have a lot of wisdom to draw on and to share.”

Adriana Walker, a junior majoring in psychology and sociology, works in community support, which she calls the “extra layer” when talking about the project: “Our primary role is to take students to safe places where they can play or do homework. We begin by asking them, ‘What’s in your community? Where might you like to go to hang out?’ When we walk into a school, the students get excited. In a perfect world, we’d provide our services to all Chicago public schools, because the Cities Project and its results are amazing.” 

The community support component of the project is also implementing a reading intervention program in an elementary school. With Walker, Andrew Devendorf leads a team made up of six DePaul EDGE students who tutor reading-disabled children after school, three afternoons a week. In that role, he’s learning a valuable lesson: “Change is slow, and project management is complex. It’s hard to get everyone moving in the same direction, at the same time. I’m benefitting from this real-world experience in so many ways; in fact, I came to DePaul because of the chance I’d get to be involved in a program like this.”

Bigger and Broader

“The biggest draw to the Cities Project for me was the fact that everything we do is backed up by research and evidence,” Devendorf continues. “The kids do increase their scores in math and reading and they do exhibit better social behavior, as attested to by their teachers and parents.” 

Because of the project’s success, Grant is working closely with CPS and four partner universities—Loyola, University of Illinois Chicago, University of Chicago and Northwestern—to expand the scale, reach and impact of the Cities Project.