Ciara Collins, HDFS Graduate Student Spotlight, September 2023

Ciara CollinsDr. Ciara Collins, LMFT is currently a Research, Monitoring, and Evaluation Associate at Abt Associates. She started at Abt in June 2020 as a Senior Analyst and was recently promoted to Associate. At Abt, Ciara works on a variety of research and technical assistance projects in the child welfare and housing spaces for clients such as the Administration for Children and Families, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the state of California, and not-for-profit philanthropical organizations in California. Her work includes a mix of project management; proposal management and writing; and qualitative and mixed methods data collection, analysis, and writing. She has also provided trainings for multiple project teams on what trauma is and how to implement trauma-informed and equitable practices. Related to this expertise, she was recently asked to join the Abt IRB as a consultant for incidents related to mandated reporting and a task force to embed trauma-informed approaches in all Abt projects.

During her time at UConn, Ciara utilized quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods approaches for evaluation and intervention studies, obtaining a Quantitative Research Methods Certificate in 2020. She managed research and evaluation projects in the areas of early childhood experiences and education, home visiting programs, school-based trauma initiatives, fatherhood programming, and college prep programs for high school students in foster care. Clients included Head Start grantees; community social service agencies; and state agencies, including the Connecticut Department of Children and Families and the Office of Early Childhood. She has presented findings from these research projects at national and international conferences and published multiple papers (with Professor Beth Russell) and a book chapter (with Professor Preston Britner).

Ciara recently defended her dissertation on subjective well-being and decision-making processes for youth with experience in foster care. She plans to continue investing her time both in and outside of Abt in research, policies, and interventions that support children, youth, and families involved in the child welfare system. To that end, she has been part of a research team for the past 3 years evaluating two college campus support programs in Georgia for students with experience in foster care. She recently accepted a journal article on this topic that will be published in Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal. She will also be leading a webinar on the findings from the evaluation in November as part of the National Research Collaborative for Foster Alumni and Higher Education’s webinar series.

Kaleigh Ligus (PhD ’23), HDFS Grad Student Spotlight, Sept 2023

Kaleigh LigusKaleigh Ligus recently completed her Ph.D. in HDFS, with a specialization in Adulthood, Aging and Gerontology. Her career began at the UConn Health Center on Aging in 2015 and she has since dedicated herself to serving older adults living with chronic disease. Kaleigh completed her Master’s in HDFS in 2019. Shortly after, she joined the Ph.D. program under her advisor, Dr. Keith Bellizzi.

Kaleigh successfully defended her dissertation on rural aging in June. In her dissertation she used secondary data collected by the National Health and Aging Trends Study to analyze chronic disease self-management and health outcomes in over 1,000 Medicare beneficiaries. She found novel results, that she hopes to publish soon, of how aging-in-place impacts health outcomes and further highlights demographic nuance among older rural Americans.

Driven by a dedication to understanding how policy impacts health outcomes, Kaleigh broadened her professional horizons by working in two external positions during her graduate school career. Kaleigh served as the Greg O’Neill Policy Intern for the Gerontological Society of America in summer 2021 and served as the inaugural Health Policy Fellow at AcademyHealth in summer 2022. Over these two summers, she worked with like-minded community collaborators and political leaders to advocate for health policy change.

Kaleigh is excited about her next steps. She recently joined the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) as a Social Science Research Analyst. In this role she will work on developing, implementing and evaluating new CMS patient care models aimed at improving Medicare beneficiaries’ health care experiences and health outcomes.

During her down time, Kaleigh can be found running around the state, gardening, embroidering, and slowing down to cherish life’s journey with her husband and family.

Lindsay Westberg, HDFS Grad Student Spotlight, August 2023

Linday WestbergLindsay joined UConn’s HDFS department in 2015 after graduating with her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Gettysburg College. For much of her graduate career, she worked with Dr. Preston Britner on the evaluation team of the Connecticut site of a federal demonstration project called Partnerships to Demonstrate the Effectiveness of Supportive Housing for Families in the Child Welfare System. There she worked with the Connecticut nonprofit service provider, The Connection Inc. (TCI), to assess whether a more intensive supportive housing program provided value-added to families involved in the child welfare system. She also wrote reports on topics such as the benefits of a scattered-site housing approach and peer mentoring for child welfare-involved families. Lindsay’s dissertation work was an extension of what she learned throughout this experience. In her dissertation, she used 20+ years of Department of Children and Families (DCF) data on families who have been involved in TCI’s supportive housing program to assess long-term child welfare outcomes for these families. Lindsay successfully defended her dissertation on July 28th, 2023 and will officially graduate this month.

Lindsay’s involvement with evaluation research and exposure to the nonprofit sector sparked an interest that she wanted to explore further. As a result, she pursued two graduate certificates at UConn – one in Program Evaluation and one in Nonprofit Management. Lindsay enjoyed both of these experiences which, in turn, solidified her interest in pursuing a career in which she could combine her background in HDFS with program evaluation and the nonprofit sector.

In October of 2021, Lindsay found a position that would allow her to do just that. She is now the Evaluation Manager at The Home for Little Wanderers in Massachusetts. The Home is the oldest child welfare agency in the U.S. and provides services to children and young adults including foster care and adoption services, behavioral health services, group homes, special education schools, and residential programs for transition age youth. In her new position, Lindsay has learned a great deal about The Home’s approach to practice including trauma-informed care, restorative practices, and achieving permanency for youth. Some of Lindsay’s responsibilities include managing a follow-up project where families are interviewed about youths’ well-being after discharge from The Home’s services, quarterly data reporting, helping programs remain compliant with funders’ reporting requirements, and developing new evaluation strategies to assess how effectively The Home carries out best-practices in their work.

Sarah McKee, HDFS Grad Student Spotlight, August 2023

Sarah McKeeSarah McKee graduated from the HDFS doctoral program in May 2023. She joined the graduate program in 2017, earning her master’s degree in 2019. During her training, Sarah worked with Dr. Marlene Schwartz on several research projects studying child nutrition, school wellness, and food insecurity. Specifically, she worked on research examining nutrition and physical activity policy implementation in childcare centers, a program to promote nutritious food choices at food pantries, and Connecticut schools’ distribution of meals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sarah and Dr. Schwartz also worked with state departments of education, examining efforts to improve local school wellness policies in Kansas and providing technical assistance for wellness policy assessment to Connecticut school districts. Additionally, they collaborate with Dr. Sandra Chafouleas in the Neag School of Education to promote the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model of school health.

Sarah successfully defended her dissertation in April on implementing local school wellness policies. She applied qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods to examine various factors influencing schools’ successful implementation of policies that support students’ well-being. In her research, she identified barriers to wellness policy implementation and highlighted strategies that school staff have used to overcome these obstacles.

In addition to conducting research, Sarah taught undergraduate students in Comparative Family Policy for three semesters, was a teaching assistant for Individual and Family Development, and was a graduate assistant for the HDFS College Career Pathways Program and the Honors Program.

Sarah is now a postdoctoral research associate at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health, where she continues to work with Dr. Schwartz. Her current focus is studying and supporting schools in improving their wellness policies and practices and serving summer meals to students. Outside work, Sarah enjoys creating nail art, listening to her vinyl record collection, attending concerts, hiking, and exploring New England with her friends and family.

Alyssa Clark, HDFS Graduate Student Spotlight, July 2023

Alyssa ClarkAlyssa Clark entered the Ph.D. program in Fall 2019 and successfully defended her dissertation in June. She is dedicated to the study of adult romantic relationships, with a focus on LGBTQ+ relationships, physical behaviors, and relationship satisfaction and maintenance, with the goal of promoting healthy and positive relationship experiences. She conducts primarily mixed-methods and qualitative research based on these interests with her doctoral advisor, Dr. Eva Lefkowitz in the DASH lab. Alyssa has also collaborated on projects in the SHINE lab, under the mentorship of Dr. Ryan Watson and Dr. Kay Simon, studying asexual teens’ mental health and school experiences, in addition to the perceptions adult MSM have about how PrEP usage impacts sexual freedom.

Alyssa’s dissertation focused on adults’ sexual and affectionate behaviors in the context of romantic partner relationships. She collected original data to write three papers using both quantitative and qualitative analyses. Overall, results from these papers highlight that adults’ sexual and affectionate behaviors within romantic relationships have similar individual and relational correlates. These results advance our understanding of what factors matter for adults’ physical behaviors and how these behaviors are associated with sexual and relationship satisfaction. They also suggest how clinicians might address physical behaviors and satisfaction in adults’ romantic relationships.

In addition to conducting research while at UConn, Alyssa has also had the privilege of mentoring and teaching students in several HDFS courses, including Infancy Through Adolescence and Family Interaction Processes.

Alyssa is excited for her next professional steps and future endeavors. This fall, she will be joining the College of Wooster’s psychology department as the Walter D. Foss Endowed Visiting Assistant Professor. She will be teaching courses in human sexuality and close relationships, and will be working with students to conduct independent research on LGBTQ+ issues and romantic relationships.

In her spare time, Alyssa enjoys distance biking, cooking, sewing, crocheting, and sharing books with her friends.