Akira Goden leaning on a hand railing in front of blooming cherry blossom trees
Akira Goden is president of the student organization Black Minds Matter, which is dedicated to improving mental health in the Black community. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Class of 2022: Akira Goden is passionate about mental health in the Black community

A double major in African American studies and psychology, her dream is to combine those two fields as a therapist.

Share this story

“My long-term goal is to start my own practice,” said Akira Goden, who graduates from the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University in May. “And I want to have a practice that is in and for the Black community because we don't have a lot of mental health resources of our own.”

Goden first became interested in psychology early in her time at VCU when she took Psych 101 and found the content spoke to her. And she decided to also pursue a degree in African American studies following the nationwide protests in 2020 against police brutality and racism.

“When everything happened in 2020, I got more into specific issues within the Black community,” she said. “And I realized that mental health was a really big issue in the Black community, and I wanted to [find a career path] that would help in my own community.”

Goden is president of the student organization Black Minds Matter, which is dedicated to improving mental health in the Black community. In that role, Goden has helped organize campus events and discussions on topics such as stigmas in the Black community around mental health treatment.

“[The organization facilitates] a mixture of events that educate our members but also allow room for discussion and for people to share their experiences and just be vulnerable. It's been very amazing. It's connected a lot of people on campus to each other. We try to be a space on campus for Black students to just really be themselves, to de-stress, to just let go.”

In addition to her studies and student leadership, Goden works as a mental health assistant at VCU Health, sitting with suicidal and behavioral patients.

“Oftentimes, I'm just sitting in the room with them and it's just us. Sometimes they'll open up to me about what's going on [with them] and I'll listen, talk to them and just try to make their stay at the hospital better,” she said.

Her job has only further reinforced her belief that she is on the right path.

“My end goal is to become a therapist and sometimes I kind of doubt myself or question if I’m good enough for that, or even capable of helping people improve their lives,” she said. “But I’ve had situations at the hospital that have reassured me that, yes, this is what I’m meant to do. There was one instance where I was sitting with this older man and he just broke down to me and cried as he told me about his situation. Afterwards he thanked me for listening to him and said he hadn’t cried in years.”

Goden also works as a research assistant at the Center for the Study of Tobacco Products in the Department of Psychology, working under Caroline Cobb, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and project director at the center. The research focuses on the perceptions of menthol smoking among the African American community.

“Being a part of that project has allowed me to really advocate for my people in order to ensure that the Black perspective remains present on decisions that will affect us specifically,” Goden said.

As a student researcher, Goden presented at VCU’s annual undergraduate research symposium. She received one of the VCU Launch Awards, which recognize outstanding research posters created by freshmen and sophomores who exhibit remarkable rigor and vision in their research. She was also selected to present her work on a panel at a national research conference, and was the only undergraduate speaking alongside doctoral-level researchers.

Grace Gipson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies, said Goden has not only excelled in the classroom but with the campus community, noting that she has served as an undergraduate teaching assistant, working as a sports club manager with VCU Recreation and Well-Being, and as an advocate for mental health.

“As a future mental health practitioner, Akira is an example of putting one’s understanding into practice,” Gipson said. “This is evident in how she is able to blend and balance her interests in both the fields of African American studies and psychology.”

Following graduation, Goden is planning to attend graduate school, with the goal of becoming a licensed professional counselor, and then eventually earning a doctorate in psychology.

“I want to provide for others the kind of help that I’ve always wanted for myself,” she said.