Loyola University Chicago

Department of Psychology


Cynthia Onyeka

Cynthia Onyeka
Training Track: Clinical
Lab: Risk and Resilience Lab
Advisor: Maryse Richards, Ph.D.
Office: Coffey Hall 442

Undergraduate Degree

University of Texas at Austin, B.A. in Plan II Honors, B.A. in Psychology


Cynthia’s research is focused on factors that promote resilience for youth of color and the relationship between socio-ecological stressors, trauma, and mental well-being in marginalized communities. Her initial interest in this area emerged through her work implementing and evaluating a longitudinal cross-age peer mentoring program for Black and Latinx youth exposed to community violence in Chicago. Through this work, Cynthia developed a research focus centered on how various socio-ecological systems can impact youth psychosocial functioning and the processes youth utilize to critically reflect upon these contexts (i.e., critical consciousness). Cynthia's program of research is dynamically linked to her clinical interests. She is primarily interested in intervention and assessment for underserved clinical populations exposed to trauma, early childhood populations, and disruptive behavior disorders.

Masters Thesis Title

Police Beats and City Streets: Examining Black American and Latinx Youth Interactions with and Perceptions of Police

Masters Thesis Abstract

Existing research on issues of race and police suggest that Black Americans and Latinx youth tend to have more negative experiences with, and views of, police than individuals from other ethnoracial groups (Brunson, 2007; Schafer, Huebner, & Bynum, 2003; Hurst & Frank, 2000; Sindall, McCarthy, & Brunton-Smith, 2016; Webb & Marshall, 1995; Weitzer, 2000; Weitzer, 2014). This finding is even more robust among Black American and Latinx youth, notably those living in low-income and high crime communities (Brunson, Rod, & Miller, 2006; Carr, Napolitano, & Keating, 2007; Desmond & Papachristos, 2016). Literature suggests that such youth have more adverse attitudes toward the police than their white counterparts (Geller, Fegan, Tyler, & Link, 2014; Taylor, Esbensen, & Winfree, 2001). These attitudes are validated by the fact that Black American and Latinx youth from disadvantaged communities are more likely to experience direct and indirect negative contacts with police (e.g., unwarranted stops, racially discriminatory policing, verbal abuse) (Cao, Fran, & Cullen, 1996; Carr et al., 2007; Jackson, James, Owens, & Bryan, 2017; McGregor, 2015). The victimization and constant burden such perceptions of police and police interactions have on Black American youth can potentially cause psychological damage (Futterman, Hunt, & Kalven, 2016; Geller et al., 2014). When coupled with repeated exposure to social, economic, and racially-related stressors, the former may result in greater adverse psychological outcomes (McGregor, 2016; Jackson, James, Owens, & Bryan, 2017; Weitzer & Tuch, 2004). However, resilience factors such as neighborhood context and ethnic identity may buffer the relationship. This thesis aimed to qualitatively and quantitative identify the impact perceptions of police and police interactions may pose on Black American and Latinx youth living in low income high crime urban communities. The current study utilized a multi-method quasi-experimental longitudinal research design to examine the nature of youth perceptions/encounters with police and the potential impact on internalizing symptoms for 81 Black American and Latinx youth. Unexpectedly, results displayed the opposite relationship. Neutral to positive experiences with police significantly predicted higher levels of internalizing symptoms than neutral to negative experiences with police. Relatedly, perceptions of neighborhood, ethnic identity membership, and gender failed to significantly moderate the relationship. However, qualitative results offered a more nuanced view into this relationship, revealing diverse negative, neutral, and positive encounters with police at varying frequencies across different environments.

Masters Thesis Committee

Maryse Richards, PhD, Noni Gaylord-Harden, PhD

Dissertation Title

Pupils of the Pipeline: Exploring the Role of School Discipline and Disciplinary Actors on Adolescent Psychosocial Functioning

Dissertation Abstract

Studies suggest that the school context is critical to the psychosocial growth of adolescents, where student experiences can either support or impair normative developmental processes. School authority figures (SAFs) and disciplinary approaches are important components of school climate, often facilitating or diminishing conducive learning environments depending on the way that they address infractions and harm against students. While well-intentioned, some approaches have been found to have a negative impact on elements of student psychosocial functioning. Zero-tolerance disciplinary actors and approaches (e.g., exclusionary discipline and school-based policing) have been found to contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, particularly for youth of color. Critical consciousness refers to the development of cognitive and interactive skills to both accurately evaluate and cope with forms of oppression (Diemer & Li, 2011) and may serve as a protective factor against these harsh disciplinary experiences. This dissertation project aims to explore how adolescents experience and interact with different contributing factors of the school-to-prison pipeline—namely student perceptions exclusionary discipline, experiences with school authority figures (i.e., teachers and school resource officers; SROs), and suspension and expulsion rates. This multi-method project will examine how these factors relate to adolescent experiences of school (e.g., perceptions of safety, school connectedness), and psychosocial functioning (e.g., ethnic identity and self-concept). Linear hierarchical simultaneous multiple regressions will be run to explore the relationship between zero-tolerance/exclusionary discipline practices and adolescent psychosocial functioning. Given that such practices primarily target youth of color, critical consciousness and racial bias victimization will be examined as a moderator and mediator, respectively. Framed within an identity-focused cultural ecological perspective, this study also seeks to examine under what conditions promote youth experience of safe and productive learning environments, from the youth’s perspective.

Dissertation Committee

Maryse Richards, PhD, Yael Granot, PhD, Grayson Holmbeck, PhD, Margaret Beale Spencer, PhD