Alyssa Cavalieri ’21 is a researcher with heart.
The triple major in English, philosophy, and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies crossed UNC Greensboro’s commencement stage last week, and she has plans for making an impact with what she’s learned, in unexpected ways.
During her senior year, Cavalieri not only engaged her myriad of interests through a faculty-mentored research project, but she has done it with one of the most important qualities that keeps us connected as humans: empathy. And that quality was an integral part of the multidisciplinary project she undertook with her faculty mentors.
With Dr. Heather Adams in the Department of English and Dr. Tracey Nichols, in the Department of Public Health Education, Cavalieri created a computer game based on the life and the challenges of someone who had experienced a substance-exposed pregnancy.
In the game, the player guides “Mary Lou” through her day as she meets with a therapist, procures her medication, goes to her job, meets with a nurse, and then ends her day by going to see her baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). At this point in her life, Mary Lou is working hard to be a good mother and make responsible choices, but because of her history, she faces discrimination and obstacles.
“The goal of the game is not just to raise empathy for people who have substance-exposed pregnancies and are giving birth to those children with addiction, but also to show all of the issues that they face. It’s to show that they don’t just need empathy,” says Cavalieri. “There’s actual structural issues that are preventing people from getting help.”
Mary Lou’s ability to reach her child is dependent on the choices she makes throughout the day, but there are also unpredictables in the game, like the way other characters treat her.
Cavalieri has combined her study of ethics and morals from her philosophy courses with a view of modern issues she’s absorbed from her courses in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, and skills in writing, storytelling, and textual analysis she learned in her English courses.
“We designed it so that in some of the endings Mary Lou successfully reaches the NICU and others she doesn’t. And in the ones where she reaches the NICU, there’s still possibilities of interaction. And that ends up being entirely outside of the player’s control.”
With a format inspired by the “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series and the online games that Cavalieri and her contemporaries played growing up, this game has an intention, and it’s to increase empathy and awareness of structural inequities.
“Parents with drug addictions are already struggling so much and facing so much discrimination,” she says. “So, support really matters.”
One thing that’s inspiring in these challenging times about Cavalieri’s work with her professors is that it’s been a highly successful example of a hybrid learning experience. Before 2020, she was in face-to-face classes mainly, but she met her junior and senior year faculty members online and worked with them extensively before meeting them in real life.
Dr. Adams and Dr. Nichols could see her potential through her written work and knew she would be a good fit for the project.
“And it’s just been really nice to have that kind of bond with a faculty member because I don’t think I’ve had that before,” she says about Dr. Adams. “And I really was not expecting it to come like, you know, during COVID on a Zoom call.”
In her final semester, Cavalieri has been working with Dr. Adams on an article about their experience of creating the game. That involvement will help her with her future plans of attending graduate school in rhetoric and continuing her multidisciplinary research in philosophy and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies.
It’s her hard work, and her heart that will get her there.
“Graduating is, it’s a little scary. It just feels like I’ve been in school for so long, and now I’m going out into the real world. You know, I’m leaving UNCG. And, I might always come back, but there’s just going to be that gap there. And I’m going to go out and try to find an adult job. And, that’s scary, but I feel prepared. I think that UNCG has done a good job of preparing me. There’s the Career Services, there’s all of those events that you can go to, and there’s the professors that are ready to answer any questions that you might have. So, it’s scary, but I think I’m ready.”
For future Spartans…
“If I were to give advice to incoming Spartans, I would say, ‘Don’t be afraid to get involved on activities on campus or with the faculty.’ The faculty here are really friendly…I made a lot of friends here, and I’m really happy on this campus. And I would advise everyone to step out of your comfort zones and make sure that you’re getting out there and going to events. There are a lot of really great events led by Activities and Campus Events, and it’s a really nice campus with a lot of opportunities.”
Story and interview/video script by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications
Videography and editing by Grant Evan Gilliard, University Communications