It was in the ninth grade during career orientation day when Carla da Cunha’s calling fully presented itself.
“One of the speakers was a social worker who brought her psychologist, whom she worked within the field, and it clicked,” says da Cunha, a Counseling Psychology student specializing in Latinx Mental Health at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “I can’t do blood and the body, so I knew I couldn’t be a doctor and save lives in that way. But, I figured I could be a doctor of the mind. I wanted to be a soul surgeon. We heal the soul.”
Born and raised in South Africa, da Cunha completed her undergraduate degree in sociology and psychology. “Growing up in South Africa…it’s a very traumatic environment due to our history. There’s intergenerational trauma, poverty-induced trauma and the implications that come from that. I knew that was the environment I wanted to work in.”
She opened and ran La Dolce Vita Counseling Services, a small practice that aligned with churches, schools, and police stations to provide trauma therapy, self-esteem growth, and personal development for clients ages three to 72. However, she found that she wanted a deeper knowledge of psychology and chose The Chicago School for further study.
“The biggest key factor for me was that all of our faculty are actually practicing in the field,” she says. “That was very important because I had practiced in the field back home and I could see how different the literature was.”
The international student has accomplished much since arriving in Chicago. Within her first year, she was named a recipient of the International Peace Scholarship from the prestigious Philanthropic Educational Organization (P.E.O International), an organization committed to helping women pursue higher education. P.E.O. will provide da Cunha with financial and sisterhood support to make her academic journey successful.
She also landed the position of Graduate Research Assistant in the IC-RACE (Immigration, Critical Race And Cultural Equity) Lab, a research hub housed in The Chicago School that investigates topics related to immigration, culture, and race in psychology and develops models, programs and interventions designed to support mental wellness within communities of color.
“It’s an incredible resource, as a student, to get that exposure to mentorship, research and advocating for different minority groups experiencing social injustices.”
Her activism also extends to a community assistantship volunteer position with Lincoln Park Community Services, an establishment that works to empower individuals facing homelessness and poverty to secure stable housing and gain the tools needed to engage healthily in society.
“Some have been through the most severe trauma situations and no longer have a support system. I get to hear them, process with them and give them support and guidance on how to move forward in life in the most beneficial way,” she says.
Working in trauma is a challenge that da Cunha has welcomed since adolescence, and she warriors through with a goal to give back to the communities that need it most. She takes none of the applause-worthy impact she’s already making for granted.
“I’m getting this incredible training on diversity, minority and historic groups in America that I want to use in the field. To have the support of the P.E.O., the IC-Race Lab, the Lincoln Park Community Center [and] to continuously get involved professionally and personally, it really makes this academic journey worth it. Because, you know, I miss my family. It’s been a huge sacrifice and I want to do everything to make sure it pays off for the benefit of others and the communities that I’ll be working in.”
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