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CAS Chronicles

Rachel Gilmore, an alumna of CAS, at her graduation ceremony in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Gilmore)

Rachel Gilmore, an alumna of CAS, at her graduation ceremony in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Gilmore)

Psychology alumna Rachel Gilmore ties Dungeons & Dragons to therapy at the USF Counseling Center

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

Rachel Gilmore graduated from the USF College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology and has immersed herself in academic and research opportunities that profoundly shaped her professional journey. Her dedication in the field of clinical mental health counseling has led her to her current role at the USF Counseling Center, where she continues to give back to the community that has been an integral part of her life.

Gilmore was born and raised in Palm Harbor, Fla., where she attended Tarpon High School. Throughout her life, she has been actively involved in sports, such as softball, and is a fan of local teams like the Tampa Bay Rays.

Growing up in Tampa Bay, Gilmore's family has deep roots within the USF community. Her mother, father, and aunt are all alumni, creating a long legacy for her to join. Reflecting on her early years at USF, she fondly recounts the exciting and eye-opening challenges that came with this new chapter of early adulthood.

“I remember as I got older, watching people save my mom’s life and thinking, ‘I want to do that, I want to be able to save other moms and other people's lives,’” Gilmore explained.

“I met my best friend pretty much the second I moved into USF. My freshman year, I lived in Delta Hall, which unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore, but is unique as it adds to my family’s history because my aunt also lived there. It was a really good experience in terms of coming into my own and stepping outside of my shell. I'm very outgoing, but I would say I'm more of a rule follower, academically driven, etc. So, coming to college, even though I was outgoing, was very eye opening,” Gilmore said.

Like many college freshmen, when Gilmore began her journey at USF in 2008, she faced the task of choosing a major. Despite some uncertainty that others may experience, Gilmore recounts several notable experiences that influenced her decision to pursue a major in psychology.

“Throughout most of my mom’s adult life, she has experienced a few pretty intense episodes of major depressive disorder. I distinctly remember as a 12-year-old, she voluntarily sought out professional treatment. I remember as I got older, watching people save my mom’s life and thinking, ‘I want to do that, I want to be able to save other moms and other people's lives,’” Gilmore explained. “There was also a movie called, ‘Sybil’ which came out in the 70s. The main character, Sybil, portrayed by Sally Field, is a woman who had multiple personality disorder, now called dissociative identity disorder. I remember having a similar feeling watching the clinician in that movie save this woman's life and help her overcome trauma. I want to be able to help people move through difficult periods of their life and come out on the other side. These two experiences really impacted me to pursue a degree in psychology.”

In addition to her major, Gilmore's passion for education led her to pursue a minor in anthropology and take extensive humanities courses. She notes that these courses complemented her psychology studies, as they shared overlapping themes across disciplines.

“I really enjoyed my psychology courses, but I also received a minor in anthropology and almost completed a minor in humanities. I fell in love with those two subjects, and I guess I was a well-rounded College of Arts and Sciences student! I didn't know that I was so interested in art and the connection it has to our culture until I took some of those classes. I often reflect on humanities in particular because I incorporate many pop culture references into my therapeutic style. I also consider how media influences culture, which I integrate into the therapy setting as well,” Gilmore said.

During her sophomore year, Rachel Gilmore (right) posed with USF’s mascot, Rocky the Bull, at a sporting event. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Gilmore)

During her sophomore year, Rachel Gilmore (right) posed with USF’s mascot, Rocky the Bull, at a sporting event. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Gilmore)

During her undergraduate years, Gilmore also chose to make use of the extensive research opportunities at USF. From her sophomore to junior year, she served as a research assistant in the Department of Psychology's social psychology lab under the supervision of Dr. Joseph Vandello and Dr. Jennifer K. Bosson.

As a research assistant, Gilmore regularly attended lab meetings, organized student participants, and took the lead in research trials. In the early stages of her academic journey, Gilmore was convinced that she would pursue psychology from a research standpoint. However, her experience at USF taught her that she greatly preferred the face-to-face interactions involved in these trials.

“While I excel in reading and comprehension, my strengths do not lie in math; I'm very sociable and I enjoy engaging in conversations with others. It was actually the experiments when I was engaging with participants that I said to myself, ‘I like this part more than I like sitting and listening to all the statistics that come out of it.’ Research is really important, and it guides a lot of what I do as a clinician, but I would rather just absorb the information and utilize it. I'm thankful for the role I had in the lab and the work I was doing, but now I get to focus on the parts I love most every day,” Gilmore said.

After graduating from USF in 2012, Gilmore pursued her master’s in Mental Health Counseling at Florida Gulf Coast University.

“As I was getting close to graduating, I sent out a million job applications and ended up getting hired by an agency called Florida Vocational Rehabilitation. It’s a state agency that helps individuals with all types of disabilities such as physical, mental, or a combination of both, to find and maintain employment. That was one of my first experiences in the field and it provided me with an opportunity to engage in core counseling experiences. I also did some part-time counseling to get a little bit of extra clinical experience. The combination of the types of counseling I was doing combined with other clinical experiences, allowed me to obtain my license as a clinical mental health counselor,” Gilmore said.

After working for Florida Vocational Rehabilitation for six years and obtaining her license in March 2020, a close friend and fellow College of Arts and Sciences alumna shared a job posting that would bring Gilmore back to her alma mater. A position had opened at the USF Counseling Center, where Gilmore has been since January 2023. Not only was Gilmore eager to return to the university, but she also drew on a personal experience that motivated her to pay it forward for the many students who would benefit from her expertise at the center.

“I would be remiss to say that working at USF is something that I've wanted to do for a while. I grew up here and I really just love the connection my family has to the university. I appreciated my time at the other agency where I could speak clinically with folks, but I wasn't able to do much beyond identifying and holding space for their experiences, so I was ready to take it to the next level,” Gilmore explained. “While I was a student at USF, I met my friend Chris during our sophomore year. He had a heart condition that he didn’t know about, and during our senior year he passed away very suddenly. At the time I didn’t know the counseling center existed, and so when I saw the opportunity to work there, I said to myself, ‘There might be other students who have gone through what I went through, who need someone to talk to.’”

Although she has returned to USF, Gilmore has also stayed involved at USF in other ways. She is a member of the USF Undergraduate Psychology Alumni Society and served on a Mental Health Awareness panel in 2023. Reflecting on that experience, she expressed gratitude for the opportunity to raise awareness about resources like the counseling center.

“Having the opportunity to represent alumni, represent the counseling center, and embody that experience was really meaningful. Additionally, being able to share what the counseling center is doing and promoting the use of therapy and mental health treatment, as naturally as going to the doctor, is the thing that moves the accessibility of this field forward. I think the more that it becomes a natural conversation, the more seeking services comes without a second thought. One of the most human things we can do is experience emotion, and sometimes we need help moving through the way that emotion impacts us,” Gilmore said.

An intriguing area that Gilmore has implemented in her work at the counseling center and beyond, is group therapy technique using a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) inspired game called Critical Core by Game to Grow. As a self-proclaimed "avid nerd" who enjoys video games, books, and D&D, this approach has allowed Gilmore to blend her personal interests with her professional passions.

“The way that most people can best understand this practice without knowing how D&D works is to think of it as a role-playing opportunity. Students have the opportunity to engage in different types of interpersonal techniques that maybe they want to improve upon or don't feel confident in. The D&D aspect comes in specifically with the characters, and it allows students to create a character that maybe reflects themselves. The D&D inspired game Critical Core is made with different challenges and skill building opportunities. As the game master, I’m going to encourage my students to utilize their skills in order to improve,” Gilmore said.

USF alumna, Rachel Gilmore, presenting the use of Dungeons & Dragons in therapy at the New World Brewery’s Pints of Science event. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Gilmore)

USF alumna, Rachel Gilmore, presenting the use of Dungeons & Dragons in therapy at the New World Brewery’s Pints of Science event. (Photo courtesy of James Gardiner)

Gilmore’s enthusiasm for this form of group therapy has opened many opportunities to present at various sessions and conferences. Recently, she showcased D&D group therapy at New World Brewery’s Pints of Science and attended the Social Justice and College Counseling Conference. This upcoming June, she plans to present alongside fellow CAS alumna Heather Walders at the Association for University and College Counseling Center Outreach, among other initiatives she is involved in.

Throughout her accomplished career, Gilmore, a proud alumna of the university, reflects on her history and future at USF, offering advice to those in the USF community who aspire to pursue careers in counseling or therapy practices.

“I like to encourage anyone who is interested in pursuing therapy or is actively pursuing therapy, to remember that we are here to hold space for somebody who is looking to make a change. We might be able to facilitate different ways to help that person make that change, but we shouldn’t go in with the intention to ‘fix’ someone,” Gilmore explained. “I also believe that the most important advice is to remember that we are human and to prioritize self-care. Working in this field, you'll encounter clients who pull at your heartstrings, both in positive and challenging ways. We can’t help them if we're not helping ourselves and maintaining our own mental health. It's totally okay to step back and acknowledge the difficulties. Take time for activities like playing video games, going for walks, or spending time with loved ones. Identify what brings you joy because it's instrumental in helping those who rely on your assistance.”

For more information about Rachel Gilmore and the mental health services available at USF, please visit the website for the USF Counseling Center.

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CAS Chronicles is the monthly newsletter for the University of South Florida's College of Arts and Sciences, your source for the latest news, research, and events at CAS.