Grace and kindness: Millikin’s Alela Kinyua plans to help people heal through art therapy

The 2024 Big Blue graduate was a student speaker at Commencement.

DECATUR, Ill. – When Millikin University senior Art Therapy major Alela Kinyua took the stage at Kirkland Fine Arts Center on Sunday, May 19, as the student speaker at the 2024 Spring Commencement afternoon ceremony, it was a moment she was sharing with both friends and family. 

Originally from Hinesville, Georgia, Alela’s family was on campus for the first time since Alela was dropped off as a first-year student. Her growth from a more quiet and contemplative freshman during the height of COVID to a confident student leader has been a critical portion of Alela’s journey at Millikin. 

Alela Kinyua
Millikin University senior Art Therapy major Alela Kinyua.

“My Millikin experience was certainly different than I expected. I was not as involved in high school, so becoming a more extroverted person here has been surprising to me. About the second semester of my sophomore year, I realized that I loved being involved and being a part of all the stuff on campus,” Alela said. “My family hasn't been able to return to campus, so this is a great way to start and finish. I’ve loved it here at Millikin, and if I went back to talk to myself in freshman year, I think I would be proud and very happy with who I’ve become now.”

Alela’s Commencement speech was titled “Time to Shine” and touched on showing grace and kindness to yourself and others. 

“Collectively, my education, leadership positions, and the many relationships I made at Millikin have taught me that grace and kindness are essential for growth and development,” Alela said at Commencement. “Grace and kindness give us the ability to have understanding and compassion for one another, which we all desperately need right now. It also allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. As we step out into the world, it is time for us to shine and remember to give ourselves the same grace and kindness we give others.”

Alela Kinyua
Millikin University senior Art Therapy major Alela Kinyua speaks at Commencement.

As Alela became more involved on campus, she joined InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and served as the President of the Black Student Union. To try something new, she even joined the Women’s Track and Field team and threw the shotput for a season. At the 2024 Honors Convocation, Alela received the Dr. J. Roger Miller Leadership Award, given to seniors who exemplify superior qualities of academic excellence and leadership.

“As a Christian, I believe in God, and I would say that joining InterVarsity has been a revelation for me this school year. InterVarsity has helped me become more open-minded and comfortable to be in spaces that I'm not necessarily comfortable in and get accustomed to different types of people that I'm not accustomed to,” Alela said. “I grew up going to church, and worship was done a certain way. Coming onto campus and being a part of InterVarsity has opened me up to different ways of worship and different cultures.”

Alela Kinyua art
"Matriarch" by Alela Kinyua.

Kindness is also an essential aspect of Alela’s studies in Art Therapy, a form of psychotherapy involving the encouragement of free self-expression through painting, drawing, or modeling. Alela has been artistic and creative her entire life, and as she looked to combine her interest in painting and drawing with psychology, she found Millikin’s Art Therapy program. 

“I've enjoyed learning how to use art, not only as a medium to express yourself but also as a way to help people start verbally communicating what they've been going through or how they're feeling. Specifically, children are the main demographic I want to work with, and they go through a lot. Art is one way for them to genuinely express themselves without feeling forced to speak about something,” Alela said. “Every day in class, I realized that this was the path I was meant to take. I absolutely love it. Millikin has an amazing undergraduate Art Therapy program, and I think any student who enters and goes into it will love it.” 

Alela Kinyua art
"Black Faces" by Alela Kinyua. 

Alela has also been recognized for her artistic achievements, winning the Dorothy Sellers Art Award for outstanding achievement and potential and setting a standard of excellence for Millikin’s School of Art & Creative Media.

“I love doing portraits, and I love painting people. Many of the themes or topics I tackle are about portraying or depicting black women. I really like to express and share our beauty. I’m speaking on how people view our bodies or how women might view themselves too,” she said. “Being able to express myself through art in that form has been very liberating. I even had a couple of students who have been muses or references for a few of my pieces. Being able to paint someone close to me allows for more of that emotion to come and show through the piece.”

Alela Kinyua art
"Sit Still and Think" by Alela Kinyua.

The techniques that Alela has learned in her Art Therapy classes have also helped her in her two years serving as a Resident Assistant in Dolson Hall. 

“Both last year and this year have taught me how to be very patient with people, and I have a better understanding of how to allow some room for grace. Transitioning into college from high school and learning how to be an adult, making your own decisions is not an easy journey for any 18 or 19-year-old to experience,” she said. “My students were some interesting people, and it was a really great experience.  They get to be themselves on the floor, which is an excellent experience for any residents to have the room to have fun and be themselves.”