Skip to content

A Heart for the Distressed

Dora Watkins

PhD Student

headshot of Dora Watkins

Rising from a tragic background, Dora Watkins is pursuing her PhD so she can bring hope and help to marginalized people living in distressed communities.

Dora Watkins, who is entering her second year in the PhD program at the School of Social Work, is focusing her research on resilience and help-seeking behaviors among high-achieving black women.

“We know resilience as a protective factor, but I see it as a potential barrier to seeking help,” says Watkins. “People place unrealistic expectations on you if you’re resilient. They expect you to bounce back from adversity, which you do, but they assume there’s no impairment. It can make your mental health care needs invisible.”

Watkins knows firsthand what she’s speaking about.

She was born in an impoverished neighborhood in Detroit to a mother who has been addicted for more than 30 years to crack cocaine. Most of her six siblings have serious health issues—cerebral palsy, epilepsy, cognitive delays. One brother has struggled with the justice system. Another is cognitively challenged and addicted to crack cocaine. She has never met three of her siblings. All seven children have different fathers. Watkins never met her biological father and never lived with her mother as a child. Raised in foster homes, she was sexually, physically, and emotionally abused. At times she was left alone to fend for a younger brother and sister, and had to resort to stealing food from a grocery store to feed them. Her mother has been in and out of rehab her whole adult life.

“I’m the only child who has been able to be okay,” Watkins says. “When my mom was pregnant with me, she would get severely ill whenever she would use drugs. Her body would just reject it every time.”

Watkins found school to be her safe space. She is the only one in her family to have a high school degree. “School was my way out,” she says. “It’s always been my therapy.”

She was twice moved ahead a grade in elementary school. School was where she shined. Teachers took her under their wing, surrounded her with books.

She graduated early from high school because of her promotions, but had trouble getting a loan for college. So, she enlisted in the Army. “My goal was always to be able to go to school,” Watkins says.

She served at Fort Lee (Virginia), Camp Casey (Dongducheon, South Korea), Fort Carson (Colorado), and Fort Jackson (South Carolina). Her favorite place to serve, she says, was in South Korea.

“The Army had a tremendous impact on my life,” she says. “The discipline I learned, the camaraderie… it was the first place I felt I belonged. And it gave me a firm foundation in terms of leadership, of teaching me how to be a leader.”

Called to Be a Social Worker

Watkins was 13 years old when she knew she was called to be a social worker. “At that point I was being adopted for the second time,” she says. “I was in and out of court, and I developed a close relationship with the social worker I had. I realized this is what I want to do. I want to help kids like me, families like mine.

“Social workers have made the greatest impact on me throughout my childhood. They empowered me, and they instilled this deep passion in me to be able to help others. I believe that everything I’ve gone through is a blueprint for me to help someone else.”

Watkins earned both her BSW (2019) and MSW (2020) from Wayne State University in Detroit before choosing the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to pursue her doctorate. “I had meetings with various faculty members as I was making my decision,” she says. “I was really interested in the research agendas of the faculty here. It’s relevant and urgent, particularly considering vulnerable populations and marginalized and distressed communities. All of the scholarly activity here illuminates areas of deep concern for me, areas that hit close to home for me. From trauma and violence prevention to maternal mental health to substance use to social justice and mental health equity, I found the School a well-grounded place to immerse myself and explore the depths of my research interests.”

Combating the “Strong Black Woman Schema”

Those interests revolve around mental health and mental healthcare disparities. “As a black woman who is high-achieving and who has always been told how resilient I am, this feeds into the phenomenon we call the ‘Strong Black Woman Schema,’ and it diverts you from seeking help when you need it,” Watkins says. “What I’ve learned from the literature is that high-achieving women severely underutilize mental health services—though they make up one of the biggest proportions of people with major depressive disorder and other serious mental illnesses.”

Watkins plans to focus her dissertation on creating an instrument to measure perceived resilience. “We have a lot of resilience scales out there but we’re not exploring how people internalize resilience or how they perceive it and how it affects them seeking help,” she says.

Working With Distressed Communities

Her plans after receiving her doctorate include disseminating the knowledge she is gaining through her doctorate work.

“I’m interested in working with distressed communities,” she says. “People in these communities don’t have access to academic journals. I want to make sure that distressed communities and marginalized people have access to knowledge so it can enhance their quality of life and improve the outcomes that are the results of social determinants such as socioeconomic status, education attainment, race, and issues like that.”

Watkins is working on building her “research toolbox” for a life of research, she says. “I want to help close race-based statistical gaps and mental health disparities, and I’m interested in helping build budding scholars—so, being a tenure-track professor.”

Empowered by the School

Just as Watkins felt empowered by the social workers in her life as a child, she feels empowered now by the School. And she is putting those leadership skills learned in the Army to work with the School.

“I’ve become the new co-president and chair of the Doctoral Social Work Association in my first year here, so I feel empowered to exercise my voice as a minority student and to illuminate issues that are centered around historically-oppressed groups,” she says. “The faculty and the program director are amazing; they really do encourage you and empower you to use your voice. So, I definitely feel seen here, and it literally feels like home.”

“You Can Beat the Odds”

Just as the social workers early in her life were role models for her, Watkins wants to be a model as well.

“I want other women of color to see me,” she says. “I’m carrying this torch to pass it along to an upcoming generation of thought leaders and innovative scholars. Someone passed that torch to me, so I want to pass it on so that the next generation of women of color, men of color, people of marginalized communities, know that you can beat the odds. You can go through a tremendous amount of adversity and still be able to overcome.”

Back To Stories
Cookie Settings