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March 26, 2019

Bernadine Waller, MA ’10, Receives a National Institute of Mental Health Grant for Her Doctoral Work

by Choya Randolph, M.F.A. '18

How do women who have survived intimate partner violence (IPV) seek help—specifically African American women? How do we meet these women where they are so they can obtain the services they need to recover? A passion to answer such questions and a lot of hard work has earned Bernadine Waller, MA ’10, associate director of experiential learning at Adelphi’s Center for Career and Professional Development and a PhD candidate in the School of Social Work, a National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) R36 grant to complete her dissertation.

The R36 grant is a mental health research dissertation grant to enhance workforce diversity. Waller is the first person at the School of Social Work and third person at Adelphi to receive this competitive award.

She received the good news on December 5, 2018, right before her college awareness presentation. “I was so excited, I almost missed the presentation,” said Waller, who is also an adjunct professor in the School of Social Work and presented at TEDxAdelphiUniversity 2016. “I remember screaming at the top of my lungs to the point that people ran over, asking, ‘What’s wrong?'”

Waller’s excitement stemmed from the massive work she put in for the grant and her dissertation, Understanding the psychosocial processes of help seeking among African American women survivors of intimate partner violence. She said she spent four months, using her summer vacation, evenings and Saturdays, working on her dissertation and the initial grant application. She first applied in August 2017 and was denied. But a passion for her research kept her going.

“The whole focus of my dissertation is to develop a theory that explains how African American women who are survivors of intimate partner violence look for help,” Waller said. “The interventions that we have currently are not interventions African American women would use. For example, 75 percent of African American women say that they’re very religious. How come some religion or spirituality isn’t infused into interventions that we’ve developed for African American women?”

Nationally, 42 million women have been victims of intimate partner violence. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), African American women are disproportionately impacted by intimate partner violence.

“African American women are two times more likely to be murdered by their partner than a white woman,” she noted. “So for every white woman who is murdered by her partner, two African American women are murdered by their partners. There’s a need for this [research].”

Waller credits her mentor, Professor Robert Bornstein, PhD, and Mary Cortina, PhD, director of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, and her dissertation committee. “Bob is an absolute gem! …Mary is truly one-of-a-kind. …I have an amazing dissertation committee,” she said. When Waller sent Dr. Bornstein her initial application, he responded that same day with feedback. What she heard from NIMH was similar to the feedback from her committee, which made her revising process smoother. She was in the top third of applicants to be scored and was encouraged to resubmit her application.

“It’s one thing to be excited about your research. It’s something else to hear other researchers say, ‘This is exactly what we need,'” said Waller, noting that one of the country’s leading IPV researchers stated this at the Society for Social Work and Research conference she attended during the time she was revising her application for resubmission.

When asked what inspires her research, she said, “It’s when things hit home. You know what they say: Research is me-search.” After hearing a story of her friend’s sister being murdered by her ex-fiancé, Waller knew something had to be done. “I can count on one hand the number of researchers who are doing this work for African American women.”

The grant will enable her to continue her research and present at conferences.

“The theory that I’m looking to build can then be expanded to include how LatinX women look for help, how immigrant women look for help,” Waller said. “I think it has the potential to completely shift how we provide services to survivors of intimate partner violence. And that is what makes the hard work and relentless dedication all the more worth it. At the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s about saving lives.”


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