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When Keilan Rickard joined the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as director of the Counseling Center in 2020, he recognized the need to connect with an underrepresented demographic on campus.
“One of our goals for the Counseling Center has been to increase the number of outreach presentations to marginalized communities,” Rickard said. “As soon as a spot became available in our department, I saw it as an opportunity to create a diversity-focused position devoted to our marginalized and underserved students.”
That goal became a reality this summer when Akeyla Madison became the UTC Counseling Center’s first diversity initiatives and outreach coordinator and counselor.
A native of Johnson City, Tennessee, Madison is a two-time UTC alumna—with a bachelor’s degree in psychology (2018) and a master’s degree in clinical mental health and school counseling (2021). Her time on campus has included being part of the Governor’s School program and serving as the University’s Tennessee Licensed Professional Counselors Association student representative during the 2020-2021 academic year.
Madison’s recently completed master’s program included a one-year internship in the Counseling Center under Rickard’s watch.
“One of Akeyla’s skills is being an excellent relationship builder with clients,” Rickard said. “She brings energy, commitment to our students and the ability to build rapport. And she’s helping us meet that goal to make sure we’re meeting folks. We’re excited about her vision for the position.”
Rickard said there is evidence that people from minoritized and marginalized communities do better when paired in therapy with somebody who looks like them.
Madison agreed, saying that in her experience growing up, “Therapy was not something that is a thing.”
“What I see more often is, ‘Let’s just pray about it,’ and we turn to religion versus understanding that we might also need to talk about it to help us navigate through some type of trial, tribulation or struggle,” Madison said.
“I see that within the African-American community but also with a lot of people in the Latinx community as well. They’re hesitant to go to a counselor who might be white, not because they don’t trust that person, but because they feel a white person is not going to really understand their experience.”
Madison said her main goal working with clients of color is to let them know that they have something in common: Both are part of a marginalized and underserved community.
“Honestly, I haven’t always been the type of person who thought, ‘Therapy, let’s go do it,’ because I wasn’t raised in that type of community. I’ve had to grow in this position and understand my biases as an individual,” she said.
Madison laughed as she tried to answer the question, “As a therapist, how do you build trust and get people to open up to you?”
“I don’t mean to sound a little cocky, but I think I am one of the funniest people I know,” she said. “I like to use humor in a lot of my rapport building, and sometimes that’s the way to get people to talk.
“Clients become comfortable around me after I crack a couple of jokes here and there. I’m the funny counselor; I like to make people laugh.”
As part of her role, Madison said she will collaborate with departments across campus to improve services for underserved and historically marginalized students.
“I feel like a trailblazer in this position. I’m creating it from the bottom and building it up,” Madison said. “My goal is to let the minority community know that they have resources and individuals that are there for them and want to help in any way that’s possible—whether that has to do with their rights, their sexuality, their disability.
“It’s a little bit of this seesaw of being there for the minority community—but also being here for the community who might not necessarily understand what this minority community feels or goes through. It’s about letting other people on the campus that might be the majority know that we have this community who might not always feel included. They might not always feel like they’re spoken for or have a voice.”
Madison has spent the early part of the semester reaching out to departments around campus to let them know her role while promoting the Counseling Center’s overall function.
“Being a student in college does not mean that they have the resources they need to survive college,” she said, “so I’ll be connecting with every single department to let them know the Counseling Center is here.
“If someone is going through a rough time, let us help you. You do not have to do it alone.”