As in the Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken,” Dorothy Espelage took the road less traveled—and it has made all the difference in her life and in the lives of countless others. Espelage did not let a rough start to life deter her. In fact, she turned bad into good, using portions of her early struggles to shape her life journey in helping others who are seen as negligible in society’s eyes. Her father went absent without leave (AWOL) from the Army and from his family; her mother put Espelage and her brother and sister in foster care for several years because she was unable to care for them herself. Her mother eventually remarried and the kids came back to live with their mother and stepfather, but as with many military families, challenges persisted, and Espelage learned early on that her parents were ill-equipped to foster positive growth and she would have to depend on extended family, teachers, coaches, librarians, and other community members to find her own way in life. These experiences are at the core of her determination to advocate for youth and families by using her scholarship to close the science–practice–policy gap.
Although academically strong and actively engaged in athletics and school clubs, Espelage found herself largely unsupervised most of her life. Through late childhood and adolescence she witnessed firsthand the powerful influence of peers on attitudes and behaviors, especially combined with low parental supervision, and these experiences sparked her interest in the homophily hypothesis—birds of feather flock together—and she has used innovative methodologies to examine this phenomenon as it relates to aggression (Espelage, Holt, & Henkel, 2003; Espelage, Green, & Wasserman, 2007). Espelage encountered many mentors along her path from middle school to high school. For example, her cross-country coach in middle and high school, Joe Curcio, saw the good in her, prodded and challenged her, and helped her see the good in herself. Curcio told her that where a kid comes from does not determine where she winds up.
College had never been a topic of conversation in her home, even though she was in advanced placement classes in high school, competed in math competitions, and won science awards for her work with fruit flies (she designed experiments where she randomly assigned fruit flies to different levels of monosodium glutamate and phosphates—her first randomized clinical trial, if you will). She knew she was on her own in looking into, applying for, and paying for college. She stumbled upon an informational meeting for Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), applied, and was shocked when she received an acceptance letter. Again, seemingly by happenstance, Espelage chose her major, psychology, because her favorite movie of all time, The Big Chill, intrigued her—particularly William Hurt’s character, who was trying to make sense of the chaotic world he was in, something Espelage could relate to.
At VCU she worked in a rat lab on clinical trials for psychotropics (and took calculus for “fun”). Later in her undergraduate work she was introduced to developmental psychology and school-based research under Dr. Shari Ellis. Espelage continued her studies at Indiana University, where she would earn a PhD in counseling psychology in 1997. Her acceptance there was not so happenstance: She drove 6 hours through a blizzard to make her interview—which only a few of the faculty members and no other interviewees attended because of the inclement weather. At Indiana University, Espelage encountered many mentors who helped her along her path: Dr. Charles Ridley, who encouraged her to keep writing and keep her head up; Dr. Alexandra Quittner, who introduced her to federal funding, research methods, and grant writing; Dr. Thomas Froehle and Dr. Rex Stockton, who both modeled a relentless work ethic; and Dr. Kris Bosworth, who introduced her to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as a funding source and who mentored her in her earliest media exposures and in publishing.
Since receiving her PhD from Indiana University in 1997, Espelage was granted tenure in 2004 and achieved full professor status in 2007 in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she was named the Edward William Gutgsell & Jane Marr Gutgsell Endowed Professor and Hardie Scholar of Education in the Department of Educational Psychology. Espelage has conducted over 40 school-based survey studies to identify risk and protective factors of bullying, peer victimization, sexual harassment, homophobic teasing, and dating violence (Espelage, 2015 for a review). Currently, she is currently evaluating a suicide prevention program in 24 high schools in Colorado (CDC-funded), creating online training for police officers in Miami-Dade schools (NIJ-funded), conducting two large meta-analyses on cyberbullying interventions and school violence outcomes (NIJ-funded), and creating a robot to respond to mean and cruel online behaviors (NSF-funded), to name a few projects.
A handful of her major contributions include: (1) Introducing to the field the notion that school-based bullying is best understood from a social-ecological perspective, in which bullying is viewed as behavior that emerges and is maintained through complex interactions between multiple socialization agents (Espelage, 2014 for review); (2) Identifying bullying during early adolescence as a group phenomenon, where cliques of students seek out victims (Espelage et al., 2003); (3) Finding that bullying is causally linked to the use of homophobic language and perpetration of sexual harassment, as early as sixth grade (Espelage, Basile et al., 2012; 2014, 2018); (4) Determining that certain youth are at heightened risk for bully victimization and gender-based aggression, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning youth (Espelage, Aragon, Birkett, & Koenig, 2008; http://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/groups/lgbt/white_house_conference_materials.pdf), and successfully advocated for legislation to protect these youth; (5) Working tirelessly over the past two decades to call attention to bullying as a public health concern and a risk factor for youth suicide (Espelage et al., 2008; Espelage & Holt, 2013) and advocating for funding to develop and evaluate prevention programs for U.S. youth (Espelage, 2013); (6) Chairing the APA task force to expose the prevalence of violence against teachers (Espelage et al., 2013) and continuing to advocate for safer schools for all.
Espelage has published over 170 peer-reviewed articles, 70 chapters, edited five books, and has secured over 10 million dollars in external funding. Along the way she has taken over 40 doctoral students under her wing—many of whom, like herself, are first-generation college students. The kid who grew up with all kinds of obstacles in her way has somehow managed to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show four times to share her research. She visits Congress and Senate offices regularly to shape legislation to protect all youth from bullying, sexual harassment, and interpersonal violence. She has been invited to attend several White House conferences. She has traveled the world to advise other countries’ departments of education. She has won numerous awards for her research and impact, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in Prevention from Division 17 (Society of Counseling Psychology) and the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest from the American Psychological Association. She was also recently elected to the National Academy of Education.
But all of that does not top her most crowning achievement. And that is the impact she has had on young people’s lives—those who have been bullied, those who have been sexually harassed and otherwise victimized. Life may not be fair, but your future is not determined by your past. After joining the faculty in the psychology department at the University of Florida in 2016, Dorothy Espelage encountered faced another round of life challenges. Once again, with the help of her partner (Ray Musleh) and friends, she came out stronger than ever. Ray and Dorothy look forward to many more years as active participants in the Gator Nation. Because, if Espelage has learned anything in this life, it is this: Resiliency is required. It is determined by drawing from your external supports in your schools and communities, tackling challenges directly, pushing yourself to do things that are not easy, and being persistent and persevering.