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Safeguarding our youth

Alicia Kozakiewicz made worldwide headlines in 2002 when she was kidnapped by an online predator. A dramatic rescue by the FBI saved the young teen’s life and inspired an interest in forensic psychology. Earlier this year, Kozakiewicz earned a master’s degree in Forensic Psychology and is using her training to help other victims on the path to recovery.

Years before recent graduate Alicia Kozakiewicz even knew about The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, her story had been told around the world.

Thirteen-year-old Pittsburgh area girl meets boy online. Boy turns out to be a 38-year-old man. Man drives girl to Virginia, holds her captive, rapes her repeatedly, broadcasts explicit video of his crimes online, tipping off the FBI to her whereabouts. Four days later, girl is rescued and reunited with her family.

It’s the kind of news that keeps parents awake at night, the kind kids hear about but never think could happen to them. And that is why Kozakiewicz says she ultimately decided to go public—emerging from the ordeal as an advocate for internet safety and tougher laws to protect children from online predators.

The work that Kozakiewicz has done in the 14 years since she was abducted has been highly publicized. In addition to launching The Alicia Project online awareness education initiative at age 14, Kozakiewicz has testified before the House Judiciary Committee; appeared on such television programs as “The Oprah Winfrey Show,”
“Anderson Cooper Live,” “Investigation Discovery,” and the A&E Biography Channel; and helped create Alicia’s Law, a provision to provide state funding for child rescue efforts.

But what is less known is the part of Kozakiewicz’s story that happened behind the spotlight, the part where she developed an interest in psychology and law enforcement—an interest that drew her to the Forensic Psychology program at The Chicago School.

“Through the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that I experienced, and in seeking counseling afterwards, I found that there were some therapists who were equipped and others who just did not have the appropriate knowledge to work with a survivor of this kind of trauma,” says Kozakiewicz, who earned an undergraduate degree in psychology at Point Park University in Pittsburgh before coming to The Chicago School to receive an M.A. in Forensic Psychology. “I wanted to use what I’ve learned through my own personal experience in therapy to make it a better experience for other victims.”

Kozakiewicz says she deliberately chose to spread her graduate studies out over nearly three years—in part to keep balance between her advocacy work and school—but also so that she could devote more time to her TCSPP internship working with teens through the Youth Crossroads organization, an experience she says impacted her in a profound way.

“I worked with many kids who had significant issues at home and in the community that caused them to struggle in school. We would take the students out of class and work with them on whatever crisis they were dealing with,” she says, explaining that the nonprofit program served youth in several Chicago area suburbs. “There were so many cases where we were just building self-esteem, helping these teenagers find their self-worth and self-value, and to let them know they can go after their dreams, no matter how big or small.”

Through most of her time working with them, she kept her own personal story of trauma and resilience a secret, not revealing it until the very end. But it wasn’t always easy to stay silent, especially when the teens would talk about visiting a chat room or engaging in other activities online.

“When I did tell my story, they were incredibly receptive and inspired, but also shocked because they had no idea,” she says.

Staying relatively anonymous and detaching from her life as an internationally recognized advocate and spokesperson could also be challenging in the classroom.

“It could be frustrating at times because I had been working in the field so long. I felt like I was a professional in my own sense, with or without the degree,” she says. “But in the end, I absolutely loved my experience at The Chicago School. It was fantastic. I learned so much and made some really good connections with a lot of really great people, professors and students alike. And my internship taught me a lot. I saw many kids whose lives were changed for the better.”

Today, Kozakiewicz finds herself at an exciting new crossroads, and ready to discover where her degree from The Chicago School will take her.

“I’ve always been interested in psychology as a way to help people, and what better way to do that than to help them evolve into the people they want to be,” she says. “I’d like to do that as a therapist, but I also see myself continuing to advocate and educate through the media.”

In the meantime, she will continue the journey she started 14 years ago. She will continue to remind teenagers to be safe online. And she will continue to tell a story that has been heard around the world.

“So many of these kids are going through their own traumatic experiences. They’re doing what they can just to survive, to get through life,” she says. “What I hope is when they see this woman who made it to the other side of trauma—knowing it wasn’t easy, but she did it—they will find that strength within themselves.”

Sherry Thomas

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