Although poetry might not be the first thing you think of when you think of therapy, it’s the creative modality that has shaped the work of International Disaster Psychology alum Ashley Cornelius, and has impacted individuals that she’s worked with around the globe.
Ashley received an undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs and got a fellowship with the El Pomar Foundation focused on non-profit management. During her time at UCCS, she traveled to Uganda where she discovered her inclination to be internationally engaged and work with young people. What’s more, Ashley had a passion for poetry and a curiosity for how it could help people navigate their emotions. Unclear in her early career how it could or would integrate with her work, Ashley looked for opportunity to activate this passion throughout her professional journey.
Back in Denver after her undergraduate degree and fellowship experience in Colorado Springs, Ashley became the program director for Art from Ashes, a Denver non-government organization that exists to empower struggling youth by providing creative programs that facilitate health and hope through expression, connection, and transformation. Their work, using a curriculum highly focused on poetry, is mobilized in schools, mental health centers, detention centers and beyond. Ashley remembers, “Not only were the youth we were serving creating these beautiful poems, but they were also sharing their trauma. The poetry allowed them to tap into something.” In her role at Art from Ashes, Ashley and her colleagues had to be clear on their roles. “We were not therapists, we were facilitators. As facilitators, we were trained to say things like ‘Thank you’ or ‘I see you’ in response to their expressions.” One day she realized she wanted to do more than just say thank you, which sparked a search for a graduate degree in psychology. With Ashley’s desire to use poetry and be internationally engaged, she knew she wanted something more creative and dynamic than an ordinary psychology master’s degree. When she found the IDP program at GSPP, she knew it was meant for her. She sent off her application to the program and went to Massachusetts for the summer to work as a poetry counselor for an all-girls leadership camp.
Upon her return to Denver that fall, she started the IDP program at GSPP, which she calls “the ideal incubator” for her to pursue this marriage of poetry and psychology. Her internship experience at Denver Health set her up to work closely with a music therapist and facilitated a collaborative environment where she was encouraged to explore how to introduce poetry therapy interventions. “Being placed in an internship environment where creative modalities were encouraged was so important,” she remembers.
Additionally, she highlighted a particular day at GSPP where Dr. Travis Heath came into one of her theoretical orientation classes to discuss narrative therapy. He explained how, although narrative therapy is a bit different than poetry therapy, the underlying theme of using creativity - Travis uses hip hop – as a means for communication and identity exploration was the same. From there, Ashley dove deep into learning more about narrative therapy and recalls, “I was so thankful that IDP introduced creative modalities in psychology as an additional modality to understand and use. I was given the opportunity to study it, understand it, and then implement it over my two years of graduate school, which was so powerful.”
An international internship experience in Liberia provided a unique environment for her knowledge and skills to be applied. She worked as a professor at a local University and even though Liberian English often kept Ashley from communicating in the way she wanted, she remembers “doing music therapy with people – singing, making beats on tables - was such a deep connection. People understood that so much more clearly than me trying to explain what depression, anxiety, and coping skills were.” While some might consider a language barrier an obstacle to care, Ashley saw firsthand how powerful creative modalities in therapy could truly be. During her time at GSPP, Ashley felt empowered and encouraged to explore the unique and primary way she engaged with the world around her: poetry. “I was able to work and engage in the ways that were salient for me. I really felt supported by GSPP to lean into the exploration and manifestation of my own therapeutic language.”
Fast forward to her career today: RISE Program Manager at Denver Health. Shortly after graduating from GSPP, Ashley was hired on at her internship site, Denver Health, where she has worked ever since, albeit in a few different capacities. Her role today in the RISE (Resilience in Stressful Events) program, a peer-support program aimed at providing psychological first aid and emotional support to health care workers who are “second victims” of stressful patient-related events out of Johns Hopkins University, could not have been timed more impeccably. Ashley transitioned into her role with the RISE program in March of 2020; the program had only just launched at Denver Health in January 2020, the unforeseen start of the global pandemic. After a few years of working for Denver Health in the adolescent inpatient psychiatric unit as a therapeutic case worker, she sometimes wondered whether she would activate the international or disaster components of her IDP degree ever again in her career. She might even tell you that she doubted when or where she would ever use these elements of her degree. She stood corrected! In the new role and overnight, “I became the subject matter expert on this stuff. I understood the phases of disaster and knew I was 100% ready for this,” she shared. Colleagues leaned on her expertise and ability to triage patients, form relevant processes and support groups, and navigate the phases of disaster in a medical setting with the COVID-19 pandemic booming. The full circle moment of seeing her degree be applied in real time, when it really mattered, was a “beautiful moment, coming at a time when I was unsure how it might end up applying to my work.”
As Ashley reflects on her career thus far, one area in particular stands out to her has both a proud and personally important moment. After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, she created a support group at Denver Health, aimed at supporting those affected by racism, Floyd’s murder and other related challenges. This support group has turned into the longest running and most attended support group at Denver Health, demonstrating the environment Ashley has created to make sure people feel safe and seen. “When we feel siloed or separated, we often think that the things that are happening to us are because of us. We don’t often consider that they could actually be systemic issues. When we come together and share experiences, it is then that we can realize where some of these issues may be happening at a larger scale and need to be addressed in a systemic way.” Furthermore, for those facing systemic racism or who may be victims of racism, Ashley views racism as a trauma, which then allows her to deliver a response that is grounded in trauma informed care, something she learned in her time at GSPP. The IDP degree enabled her to gain specialized knowledge and hands on experience working in the trauma, disaster, and global mental health field - proving extremely valuable both abroad and here at home on U.S. soil. In light of Black History Month, Ashley would encourage you to learn about the Black history in your city and the Black history of your career area. To her this month is a time to celebrate and honor Black joy, artists, innovators, authors, educators, businesses and also learn about how Black history impacts you. On behalf of all of us at GSPP, we urge you to take time to reflect, show up for one another and use our gifts and skills to aid the healing of our country on a daily basis, not just during the month of February. Accept the crucial, and often uncomfortable, invitation to be a force for change in society.
When thinking about points of advice she might share with others, Ashley says:
- Find ways to continue pursuing your passions. “I never thought poetry would integrate with my work the way it has. Be open-minded with the ways these things may turn out. It may not look like what you initially think it will be.”
- Integrate your passions into your work, even if it means trailblazing. “So many people need support and help, the way you do it might really captivate someone who really needs it. When we’re working in our passions, the people we serve will be better for it!”
You can read more about Ashley, her award winning work, and recent Pikes Peak Poet Laureate recognition at this link: https://www.cpr.org/2021/10/22/meet-the-new-pikes-peak-poet-laureate-ashley-cornelius/