Commencement 2024: Challenging past fuels human development grad’s drive to help ‘people who remind me of me’

KINGSTON, R.I. — May 17, 2024 — A DCYF social case worker often encounters people at their lowest points, desperately seeking affordable childcare to take a much-needed job; choosing between heating the home and putting food on the table; or even fighting to avoid losing their home altogether. Case workers need to meet their clients where they are, and work creatively to help them solve whatever issue they are dealing with to keep it from becoming a crisis.

It helps enormously when that care worker has been there herself.

Alexandrea Kenyon was just 2 years old when her father tragically died in a car accident, and barely 5 years old when cancer claimed her mother. Forced to leave the dairy farm in Ashaway, R.I. she initially grew up on, Kenyon and her younger brother were separated from their other two sisters and sent to live with family members who themselves lacked stable housing.

“We moved like every six months, all around Rhode Island, Connecticut, the Midwest. I was constantly changing schools and I basically never made a friend,” Kenyon said. “All my siblings dropped out of school, and everyone just tried to survive. It was kind of intense. You go so many years like that and you just can’t connect with anyone. Maybe that’s why coming here was such a big deal. People—the professors, other students—were willing to connect. The willingness to do something for nothing in return, no motive; just random kindness for no reason. That was so shocking to me.”

The Human Development and Family Science student, graduating with her bachelor’s degree in May, took a circuitous route to the University of Rhode Island. Despite being on her own at age 17, Kenyon managed to graduate from Chariho High School, the first member of her family to do so. She continued to bounce around, at one point settling in New York while using her impressive painting skills as a tattoo artist. When her first daughter was born, she made her way back to Rhode Island, but found she didn’t know where to go from there.

“After the way I grew up, I didn’t really know what to do, or how to take care of her,” Kenyon said. “I wanted a home that wasn’t going to change. Over the years, I started to feel homesick, but for a place that never really existed in the first place. Growing up in poverty is one thing, but being in poverty as a mom with children of my own is something else. I just wanted to feel like I had some control over my life.”

Kenyon was referred to the state Family Care Community Partnership, a division of the Department of Children, Youth and Families to help at-risk families get back on their feet. The FCCP helped Kenyon find affordable childcare, an apartment in Westerly, and even a job working to help people in similar situations as herself.

 “It was the first time anybody had just met me and said you seem capable, here’s an opportunity. The way I grew up it was hard to believe,” Kenyon said. “I would see people who reminded me of me. Maybe it would be a young mom with a little boy, and maybe they lived in a motel, and I was able to go to people and help her. There were people I would meet who would go from a literal homeless status to getting a job making more money than me. You would see these kids who may have lived in deplorable conditions, or maybe they’re on their third foster home, but you could see their incredible resilience. Seeing kids from severely disadvantaged situations go onto achieve is awesome.”

The job afforded Kenyon the flexibility to go back to school, and HDF was a perfect fit for her. Despite being a non-traditional student who was a few years older than most of her peers, was a mother of two daughters, and had taken a different route to get here, Kenyon found a home at URI.

“My first class was in the big lecture hall in Chafee. When I had last been to school, nobody had computers. I showed up with a notebook and pencils, and there was this cascade of Macs in the lecture hall,” Kenyon said, noting she immediately bought a Mac and quickly settled in, partly thanks to mentors like Associate Professor Julianna Golas. “The professors here are overwhelmingly supportive, and the stuff we learn about in classes I find insanely relatable. I felt I had the empathy from my personal experience and the experience of having done it professionally for five years. It just really made me feel really armed in a way that I feel I can legitimately help people.”

In the course of her studies, Kenyon met Assistant Professor Sammy Ahmed and began working with him on his research into executive function and cognitive development of children. Kenyon worked to break down video of the children performing tasks like walking in a circle until the music stops. She would record—down to the millisecond—the time it took for children to respond to such cues, and evaluate the data over two years of the study to observe the improvement the test subjects made. The research shows that socioeconomic status does not predict negative outcomes, despite the stress children may face.

“A lot of the statistics show you’ll be a mess, you won’t have relationships, you won’t finish school, you won’t achieve anything,” Kenyon said. “I hated those stats. I think that’s what made it interesting to me.”

Kenyon will continue to work with children and families facing less than ideal circumstances upon graduation. She has already secured a job as a social case worker with DCYF, a job similar to her previous role with FCCP, conducting home visits with at-risk families, connecting people with services they need, and giving them the tools to reach long-term sustainability.

“It’s basically helping people every day,” Kenyon said, noting her personal history and experience at URI will help her succeed in her budding career. “You have to learn how to be genuinely empathetic, but also logical and find that balance in the middle. I think school helped me with that. Coming here was super empowering for my identity and my self-esteem. Working with families, I feel like I could deliver that same thing to them because I was living what I was preaching. I did it.”