To better serve the community

New program aims to develop undergraduate researchers into community-engaged change agents.

Natalea Leon

By Elizabeth Baker, Comm ’17, Grad ’18  

Natalea Leon began at Marquette as a pre-med student, but after two years of biology and chemistry courses, she missed the personal aspect of medicine that originally drew her to the field. After transferring to the Psychology program, she was immediately drawn to the Latinx Research Scholars Program, a new opportunity for undergraduates to participate in community-engaged research with Milwaukee’s Latinx community. (Latinx is a gender-neutral term used by the scholar program.)

“It was the perfect program for me,” Leon says. “I am a member of the Latinx community — my family emigrated from Mexico — and there was the person-to-person research component.”

Leon is one of four Latinx Research Scholars in the inaugural cohort of the program, an initiative focused on the mental health of Latinx individuals.

Dr. Lisa Edwards, professor of counselor education and counseling psychology, and Dr. Lucas Torres, professor of psychology in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences, lead the program, which was funded through an Explorer Challenge grant, a university initiative that provides seed money for innovative student, staff and faculty projects. 

Leon focused her research on a program for victims of human trafficking at the nonprofit advocacy organization UMOS. She spent the 2021 spring semester and summer working with staff and interacting with survivors in the program. She tailored her project to the needs of the human trafficking program — building and administering a survey for survivors about their experience with law enforcement, with the goal of identifying reasons why victims are reluctant to report incidents. 

“We found that trust is a main component between officials and survivors,” Leon says. “Trust holds everything together, and it creates better cooperation through the whole process.”

Leon’s work laid the foundation for UMOS to conduct in-depth interviews with program participants and will help UMOS apply for additional research grants, recruit other research partners and establish more outreach programs. 

At UMOS, Leon learned there is a significant need for mental health counselors for Spanish speakers and other underrepresented populations. Inspired by her experience with the survivors, she plans to pursue a graduate degree in counseling psychology with the hopes of one day caring for the mental health of minority communities. 

Edwards is grateful to UMOS and the United Community Center, the Latinx Research Scholars Program’s other community partner, for helping kick-start the program and mentor the students. 

“We have so many good organizations serving the Latinx community here in Milwaukee; the question is, how can we work together as researchers? This is a unique opportunity to be engaged in the community.”