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Meet Undergrad Student Commencement Speaker Daniella Olivares

Olivares will speak at fall commencement on December 17

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Daniella Olivares, AU commencement speakerDaniella Olivares, photo by Dylan Singleton.

This fall’s undergraduate student commencement speaker Daniella Olivares first became interested in American University during a high-school trip to Washington, DC. At the time, she had a strong feeling that AU would be the best place for her. “I chose AU because it was the place where I felt most at home,” she says. “With a highly motivated student body eager for change, I knew AU would offer me leadership opportunities that would enhance my undergraduate experience.” 

With dreams of becoming a child psychologist, Olivares declared a major in psychology when she arrived at AU. In the spring semester of her freshman year, she added a minor in health promotion so she could better understand how mental health could be viewed through a health studies framework. “After falling in love with health promotion, I decided to further immerse myself in the health studies department by adding a second major in public health,” she says. “I credit this as one of the best decisions I made during my time at AU. It taught me the value of applying a public health framework to clinical psychology, advancing the mental health of others at both the population and individual level.” 

Leadership and Research Excellence 

During her time at AU, Olivares served as secretary and vice president of AU’s chapter of LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), student representative for the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Student Advisory Council, member of the Psi Chi International Honor Society in Psychology, and undergraduate research assistant in AU’s Bayet Lab and Interpersonal Emotion Lab.

In the Bayet Lab, run by Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Laurie Bayet, Olivares assisted in a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project exploring the development of visual representation in a sample of 25 infants and a comparison sample of 75 college students. Currently, she reviews the informed consent and compensation for participants in another study. Her work for the Bayet Lab gave Olivares an opportunity this fall to travel to Santa Rosa, Ca., to attend the second annual Fetal, Infant & Toddler Neuroimaging Group Conference, where the lab presented a poster titled “Visual Representation in Infants: Looking Times Compared to Electroencephalography.”

Since May 2021, Olivares has worked at Butler Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Rhode Island, during summer and winter breaks. She helps ensure a safe environment for patients through observation, monitoring, and direct patient care. She also coordinates educational and therapeutic groups, and she facilitates exercise and meditation activities, all to improve and maintain the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of patients. 

In 2022, Olivares worked in the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center, affiliated with the Alpert Medical School at Brown University. She assisted with research on improving health outcomes for adolescents from low-income backgrounds through interventions aimed at decreasing weight bias and stigma. The following summer, Olivares worked as a clinical research assistant in Brown’s Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior. She was responsible for screening, recruiting, and obtaining the informed consent of adolescents and their caregivers in a study exploring a family-oriented intervention for adolescents hospitalized with psychosis-spectrum symptoms. In a separate qualitative study, she assisted with research exploring co-occurring suicidal thoughts, behaviors, and psychosis-spectrum experiences among psychiatrically hospitalized adolescents at clinical high risk for psychosis.

Olivares did not stop there. Inspired by this work, she conducted a chart review to evaluate the interrelations between self-compassion, psychosis symptoms, and suicidal ideation in a sample of 720 adolescents admitted to a psychiatric inpatient unit. Results found a stronger association between psychosis spectrum symptoms and suicidal ideation among those with high self-compassion, contrary to her hypothesis. These findings, recently presented as a poster and currently being written into a manuscript, highlight the complexity of self-compassion and call for further research.

Looking Forward, Looking Back 

After graduation from AU, Olivares is looking at a bright future. She has applied to PhD programs in clinical psychology, which she would begin in fall 2024 if admitted. “If I do not get into any of these programs, as they are more difficult to get into than medical school or law school,” she explains, “I plan on working as a clinical research assistant for the following two years before re-applying.” 

Olivares has some advice for AU students. “Get involved on campus and do not be afraid of reaching out! AU offers a multitude of opportunities for their students, which are all attainable if you take the initiative and seek them out,” she says. “I would never have held a position on the CAS Dean’s Student Advisory Council, been an executive board member of AU LULAC, held the position of a research assistant in two labs, or been selected as the fall student commencement speaker if I had not reached out and applied!”