TU alumna aims to increase neuro, ethnic diversity in mental health

How faculty mentorship, service-learning prepared Yanna Taboada ’21 for a career in psychology

By Rebecca Kirkman on January 24, 2022

Women walking and talking in hallway with face coverings
Yanna Taboada ’21, left, with psychology associate professor Erin Girio-Herrera. (Photo: Lauren Castellana)

In her last term at Towson University, winter 2021 graduate Yanna Taboada could often be found walking the halls of the Liberal Arts building with psychology associate professor Erin Girio-Herrera. During these walking meetings, they discussed Girio-Herrera’s new service-learning course PSYC 470: Special Topics in Psychology, where Taboada served as the class proctor.

An opportunity for students to experience clinical psychology beyond the classroom while serving a specific population—in this case, neurodiverse students at TU—students in the course are conducting a campus needs assessment of students with ADHD.

Spanning the full academic year, the fall term focused on conducting focus groups with stakeholders across the university, such as the TU Counseling Center, Accessibility & Disability Services and Athletics. This spring, the focus shifts to conducting individual interviews with students with ADHD.

“The students are learning clinically: They’re learning about ADHD, [and] they’re learning about that neurodiverse population. And because it’s a service class, we’re thinking very strategically about how we can serve this population of students on campus,” Girio-Herrera says. “But they’re also learning research skills. They’re learning professional development skills—critical thinking, problem-solving, interpersonal communication and reflective writing skills as well.”

As the course proctor, Taboada worked closely with Girio-Herrera—who she affectionately calls Dr. G—on the development and execution of the course.

A member of the Honors College with a psychology major and applied adult disability studies minor, Taboada gained professional experience not only in clinical psychology as the course proctor but also the skills and theory behind teaching and what is involved in designing and implementing a university course. She got credit for the experience through PSYC 383: Proctoring in Psychology.

Initially, though, Taboada had reached out to Girio-Herrera about the possibility of conducting research together. “Being in the Honors College really pushed me to seek out more research because of that experiential learning requirement,” Taboada explains. 

Although Girio-Herrera didn’t have a need for a student research assistant in spring 2021 when Taboada first reached out to her, the two discussed Taboada’s goals and stayed in touch. When the opportunity for a student proctor opened up, Girio-Herrera immediately thought of Taboada.

“I’m really impressed with her,” Girio-Herrera says. “Asking a student to be a proctor is a significant time commitment. And it’s also work that impacts the university and vulnerable populations, so I have to place a great deal of trust in them. And Yanna is just incredibly reliable and professional. She has amazing boundaries with the students, yet they feel completely supported by her.”

Psychology students take a scientific approach to studying human behavior and development and gain valuable research skills.

Learn more. Request information.

In addition to developing questions for quizzes and reflective feedback prompts, Taboada worked with Girio-Herrera to evaluate the impact of PSYC 470 on student attitudes, skills and behavioral intentions that may be affected by service-learning participation.

“Because Dr. G knew that I had initially contacted her for research, she had this great idea of, ‘What if you do research on this course?’” Taboada explains.

As part of the research, she found measures of service learning and collected data from students in the class before and after the term. Since graduation, Taboada has continued to compile her research and hopes to publish the findings with Girio-Herrera this spring.

Because of the collaborative course structure, which students describe as feeling more like a business meeting than a class, students lean heavily on problem-solving skills like adaptability and communication. As the proctor for the course, Taboada honed many of the same skills.

During the term, Girio-Herrera mentored Taboada as she applied to graduate schools, the next step in her pursuit of a career in mental health.

“Dr. G is known as a professor who has high expectations for her students, but she will support you to get to that level,” Taboada says. “I really appreciate all the feedback that she has for me as a teaching assistant and as a student, and I’m never scared to ask for her opinion on anything. I’m really glad to have found a mentor like her.”

Taboada first discovered her passion for psychology in high school during an Advanced Placement (AP) course. The need for more diversity in the field further fueled her passion.

“As an Asian American, I’m not seeing a lot of mental health professionals who can directly relate to my experiences,” says Taboada, who is a Filipina. “I would like to provide that sort of relationship for future Asian Americans.”

A commuter student, Taboada says she didn’t get involved on campus right away. But her adviser, professor and Honors College director Alison McCartney, encouraged her to explore student life. Briseyda Barrientos-Ariza encouraged her to join the Honorables of Color, a student group Barrientos-Ariza founded within the Honors College.

“Honorables of Color opened me to this new group of people at the Honors College who I can relate to and who I feel comfortable enough to speak my mind to,” she says. 

As the organization’s vice president, Taboada worked with co-presidents Barrientos-Ariza and Catherine Volcy to develop a scholarship for students of color. She also joined the Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern & Desi American (APIMEDA) Learning Community, served as social chair for the DREAM Interest Group, which advocates for undocumented students, and worked on four different research projects with faculty.

“I started making more friends and picked up more responsibilities. Next thing you know, I have all these things on my resume,” she says.

As she faces the next step in her academic career, Taboada plans to lean on the skills she developed as a proctor. 

“It can be scary to be a graduate not fully knowing how things are going to pan out,” she says. “But that’s where my skills from this class will come in. I will continue to adapt to all these barriers that are going to come my way, no doubt.”