When Shawntell Pace (M.Ed. ’19, Ph.D. ’22) was an undergraduate student at Auburn University, she often found herself venting her frustrations to a close group of friends. They would congregate in her living room to process life together, often ending up in tears or laughter, but always encouraging each other to tackle the issue at hand. So, when she began her graduate program at the University of Georgia, Pace wanted to create the same sense of community for students on campus.
“I found my community with the women of color in my program who love me for who I am and truly believe in lifting up others as they climb,” says Pace, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in counseling psychology. “Most Black women who attend a predominately white institution do not have that, and I wanted to be sure there was a resource on campus to connect Black women with each other.”
Last year, she founded The Healing Circle, a weekly support group that provides a safe space for Black women to share their experiences at UGA. Under the guidance of Linda Campbell, a professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services and director of UGA’s Center for Counseling and Personal Evaluation, Pace hopes to transform the way mental health practitioners provide care to Black women.
Along with counseling psychology doctoral students Ecclesia Holmes (Ph.D. ’22) and Tanisha Pelham (Ph.D. ’22), Pace provides strategies for the group to combat racial trauma, often engaging them in difficult conversations on loss, depression, anxiety, intergenerational trauma, stress management, spirituality, and more. “There is something beautiful about seeing 14 Black women come together from all different walks of life for an hour, let their guards down, and just be vulnerable and real,” she says. “It’s the closest thing to true freedom that I have seen in a while.”
Pace is a member of the Sankofa Research Team at UGA, which is directed by Collette Chapman-Hilliard, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services. The team is dedicated to reducing mental health disparities and education gaps in the African descent community. Pace is specifically interested in how race-based experiences impact the mental and physical health of people of African descent and is currently conducting a research study that looks at the way Black women define and engage in forgiveness, as well as another study that aims to explore the cultural strengths, mental health, and pathways to academic success of early career Black college students.
“Our hope is that after we graduate, this sacred space will continue to facilitate awareness and healing for Black women as they navigate their life and academic careers,” says Pace. “Our message is always clear—we see you Black women, we hear you Black women, and most of all, we love and respect you.”