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Instilling Hope

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Denise Ojarigi: Healing Minds, Transforming Lives

UMD Alumna Denise Ojarigi  
The skills Denise Ojarigi learned as she considered becoming a medical doctor have proved essential in her work as a psychologist. Photo courtesy of Carlos Soto.  

"Working fills me with a great sense of joy, because I am doing what I love. It doesn't even seem like this is a job," said Dr. Denise Ojarigi, '05, who is now a registered psychologist. She is a clinical supervisor in the Intensive Family Services Program at Casa Pacifica Center for Children and Families in Camarillo, Calif. However, this was not her plan when she first came to UMD.

"Ever since I was a child I wanted to be a surgeon," Ojarigi said. "I had a heart murmur and open heart surgery when I was very young. After that, I was intrigued by medicine and wanted to mend the hearts of others."

When Take Your Daughter to Work Day came around, she put on scrubs to shadow her father in the postanesthesia care unit. Later she volunteered in hospitals and jumped on the high school pre-med track of biology, chemistry, life science, and anatomy.

When she arrived at UMD as a Wallin Scholar, Ojarigi plowed forward taking more biology and chemistry. But in her freshman year, two classes caused her to change her path. A psychology class with Joie Acheson Lee exposed her to a holistic and the mind/body connection. A second class highlighted how psychology permeates family, work, social, and other aspects of life.

She considered marriage and family counseling or working as a school guidance counselor. Her advisor, Lisa Rigoni Reeves, helped her find courses to fit her interests. Assistant Professor Paula Pedersen hired her as a teaching assistant and Ojarigi became a leader in the Psi Chi/Psychology Club.

Ojarigi credits several people with making her UMD years good ones. "Festus Adda Yobo had the most wonderful sense of welcoming," she said. She knew Nika Abdullah from her hometown community of Brooklyn Park, "So I had a taste of home, too." She enjoyed spending social time in the multicultural center and with the Black Student Association. "Susanna Pelayo-Woodward created a great atmosphere," she said. In 2012, Ojarigi came back to UMD to speak to student groups and classes.

Her years in the UMD psychology program and five years of training after UMD prepared her well for her new mission. The skills she learned as she considered becoming a medical doctor — diagnosing symptoms and feeling empathy for her patients, for instance — transferred well to her career as a psychologist.

"We instill hope in families," Ojarigi said. "We help them find the resources to make their days ahead better." She feels grateful.

"Every day, people share their hopes and fears with me," Ojarigi said. "They invite me into their lives. I am where I want to be."

Those Who Can, Duluth

Written by Cheryl Reitan, 2013

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UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,

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