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From immigrant to psychologist: Chicago/Online commencement student speaker seeks to inspire with her Adler journey

Stories | 09.28.23

Johannil Napoleón, Psy.D., still remembers her high school graduation, listening to the valedictorian or class president giving speeches to the class and wondering what it would be like to share her story.

On Oct. 22, she’ll get her chance.

The Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology graduate will be this year’s student speaker during the Chicago and Online campuses’ commencement ceremony at the Chicago Theatre.

And Dr. Napoleón is prepared to inspire her peers while sharing her journey — from immigrating from the Dominican Republic as a young child to her experiences as an Afro-Latina with Haitian lineage pursuing a career in mental health.

“I hope what I say will be memorable to them, and it’s something they can think back on and draw more inspiration from,” she said.

Photo of Dr. Napoleon's community art project

Dr. Napoleon stands in front of a community project she created in October 2014, while she was living and working in the Dominican Republic.

An outstanding student

Dr. Napoleón first arrived at Adler’s Chicago Campus to pursue her Psy.D. degree with an emphasis on traumatic stress psychology in 2018.

She earned a master’s degree in art therapy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013 and worked in a community health setting for about five years before deciding to look for a doctoral program.

“For me, the values and mission of a school really mattered to me,” she said. Dr. Napoleón applied to several schools, but something about Adler stood out.

“Being someone who has been marginalized and oppressed throughout my lived experiences, I wanted to find an institution that provided me with the resources to succeed and a program that would address the systemic issues that affect the people that we serve,” she said. “Adler had all of that.”

For the next five years, Dr. Napoleón quickly became an active and exceptional student.

She co-founded the University’s Leading with Excellence, Achievement, and Diversity (LEAD) Program, which centers on mentorship to master-level students of color while providing a safe and courageous space to dialogue on unique experiences they encounter in higher education. She also founded the Black Art Therapist Network, which provides support, resources, and mentorship to Black art therapists, students, and professionals globally.

Dr. Napoleón also joined the Adler Black Student Association and Hispanic/Latino Student Association and served as Adler Student Government’s diversity and inclusion officer. She received the Diversity Assistantship and the 2021 Dr. Alfred Adler Social Justice Award.

For her fifth year, she completed her psychology internship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“I’m really proud of how involved I was at Adler, which is something I wasn’t expecting to do,” Dr. Napoleón said. “But when I think about commencement, I can feel the pride I have towards my peers. I wasn’t on this journey alone.”

Photo of Johanna Napoleon on Saona Island

Dr. Napoleon enjoying the beauty of Saona Island in the Dominican Republic. Her family immigrated from the DR to Miami, Florida, when she was 3 years old.

‘Adler students tend to stand out’

Born in the Dominican Republic, Dr. Napoleón was only three years old when her family moved to Miami, Florida. She cites her family as the spark that led her to pursue a career in mental health.

“Growing up, helping others was just a big theme in my family,” she said. “I grew up in an under-resourced community, but I still remember my father helping other families more in need.”

Then, in high school, she took her first psychology class, taught by a community college professor which allowed Dr. Napoleón to earn college credits.

“I absolutely fell in love with that class,” she said. “I was completely amazed at human behavior and how psychology can help others in my community.”

Today, she continues to put that work into practice — this time at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, providing psychological services to children with cancer and blood disorders, and helping their families navigate their journey through those illnesses. The work is through the Emory University School of Medicine Postdoctoral Fellowship Program in Professional Psychology.

“Emory is a rigorous program to get into, but Adler really prepared me in my clinical competency through its social justice focus,” Dr. Napoleón said. “It made me and other Adler students stand out because of our knowledge of how systems impact the patients or clients — from different populations — we work with.”

Photo of Johanna Napoleon at an art exhibit

Dr. Napoleon showcasing her work at a 2016 art exhibit in Lexington, Ky.

Looking back, looking forward

Dr. Napoleón just started her one-year fellowship in early September. But in October — at least for commencement weekend — she’ll look back on her time at Adler and look forward to celebrating her accomplishments.

Dr. Napoleón has planned a lunch cruise at Navy Pier with her family and playing tourist in the city that had been home for about 10 years.

“My family members are already telling me, ‘Girl, you’re doing too much,’” she said laughing.

After her fellowship at Emory, more celebrations will follow with plans to explore Europe and South America.

“I love to travel, but obviously, with the Psy.D. program, it’s been tough to afford or find time to do that,” she said. “It might not happen for another year, but I look forward to seeing more of the world.”

Then there’s the speech, something she didn’t get to do in high school and college.

“It’s truly an honor to receive this opportunity,” Dr. Napoleón said. “It’s almost like — and it might be cheesy to say — a dream come true. I’m glad my inner child gets to do something like this before I start a new chapter in my life.”

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