Coming to SMU, Elise Hawkes (’19) knew she wanted to enter the Meadows School of the Arts’ competitive music therapy program. But what she didn’t know was that she would soon fall in love with the Embrey Human Rights Program as well, one of the few of its kind in the country.
Ultimately, and in partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Dallas, Hawkes combined the two interests, researching how music therapy can affect refugees. Now, the soon-to-be graduate plans to continue her work as she heads off to the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in New York this fall for a clinical internship.
“I’ve always been passionate about music, and it’s always been my focus. But when I was looking to go to college, I knew I wanted to be in some sort of helping career such as social work, and I wasn’t sure if I would continue with music – I didn’t want to perform professionally or be a band director,” Hawkes said.
But, after she found out about the music therapy program from her brother, also an SMU alumnus, its rigor drew her in. “I realized having a strong music program was really important to me,” she said. “They hold all majors to a high standard in Meadows, and I wanted to be challenged and pushed by my peers and professors.”
Though not a music performance major, Hawkes has still been able to perform on French horn with the Meadows Wind Ensemble, the Meadows Symphony Orchestra, and various chamber ensembles while at SMU.
In her first semester, Hawkes enrolled in Human Rights: America’s Dilemma, the introductory course to the human rights program. Part of the class involved community outreach, so she chose the IRC for its work with refugees who have relocated to the Dallas area. That’s when she began to realize how her music therapy work could inform her newly chosen human rights minor.
“Last spring, I took the Ethics and Human Rights class, where we had to develop a proposal for a community engagement project. So after I had been working with refugees, and doing my music therapy coursework, I became interested in exploring how I could marry the two – using music therapy to work with survivors of human rights violations,” Hawkes said.
After finishing the class, the music therapist-in-training received funding through an SMU Engaged Learning Fellowship that allowed her to follow through on her project idea. She began working with Dr. Daniel Tague, the chair of SMU’s music therapy department, and the IRC to study the effects of music therapy on a group of Congolese refugees.
“I met with the mental health coordinator of the IRC, and she had never heard of music therapy before,” Hawkes explained. “I told her how I thought it could help these refugees with their mental health needs. In my research, we looked at the effects music therapy had on this group’s levels of depression, anxiety, distress and wellbeing.”
The group met once a week for eight weeks, taking part in singing, drumming, and simply listening and relaxing to music. “I had to be adaptive in ways to reach them,” Hawkes said, noting she found particular success in using hymns with the group. “In Congolese culture, music plays a large role in spirituality. So, by using hymns, we were able to connect in a way that was familiar and meaningful to them. If I had just brought in Taylor Swift songs, it wouldn’t have been as effective.”
Though her sample size was small, Hawkes said her participants had positive outcomes in all factors: Levels of depression, anxiety and distress decreased, while wellbeing increased. “The outcomes exceeded my expectations,” Hawkes said.
Now, Hawkes is spending her remaining time at SMU working on turning her research into a paper to submit to the University’s Journal of Undergraduate Research, while providing volunteer music sessions at the IRC, which is looking to continue music therapy services after seeing the success of Hawkes’ research project.
So, what’s next? She’ll begin her clinical internship in September at Mount Sinai, where she hopes to continue working with refugees and playing French horn. After that, she’ll take the exam to become a board-certified music therapist.
“I’ve learned a lot, but I’m definitely ready to graduate now,” she said with a laugh. “I feel grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had, and I’m glad I took advantage of them. SMU makes it possible to do a lot of different things at once, and at a high level.”