A shift of focus

March 7, 2023


By Cheryl Spain
Pascaline Munezero, ’22

Pascaline Munezero, ’22, knew that she wanted to study psychology at Richmond, which is why she pursued a neuroscience concentration and research in the cognitive neuroscience lab with professor Cindy Bukach. But it was a class during her last semester on trauma and resilience taught by professor Janelle Peifer that helped shift her focus.

“It completely changed whatever research I’d done,” she said. “I was like, ‘OK, that’s what I’m going to study now.”

Growing up in Rwanda in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, Munezero has seen firsthand the effects that trauma — intergenerational trauma — can have on individuals.

“Rwandans have been exposed to so much trauma, and so many people are resilient; they go past that experience,” she said. “But so many people stay under that yoke of having flashbacks haunt them every night, falling into that trap of [post-traumatic stress disorder] or even having addiction issues and stuff like that because of that trauma.”

That’s why she wanted to better understand the long-term implications and find her role in helping those in her community.

Munezero interned at the University of Rwanda and then worked as a research and content development assistant at the University of Global Health Equity after graduation. She is now in her second semester of an online master’s degree program through the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, studying psychological approaches to mental health in children and young people. The online program allows her to pursue a degree while working — and volunteering — to grow her professional experience. She hopes to continue on to a clinical psychology doctoral program, focusing her research on adverse childhood experiences, their relationship to parenting style, and the types of interventions that can be applied to stem trauma’s impact across generations.

“[Traumatic] experiences can be very detrimental, not just when you are a child, but when you grow up and are an adult,” she said. “They still follow you. They still impact you. They tend to define your trajectory in life.”

Munezero also hopes that her continued education will give her the broad perspective necessary for working with patients. It’s something she feels is needed more in the many areas of her country where clinical psychologists typically don’t advance beyond their undergraduate studies.

“So many clinical psychology graduates [in Rwanda] do not have the opportunities to continue their specialization or further their research — or be exposed to development outside their practice,” she said. “And that tends to hinder the patient experience.”

Munezero wants to help change that and sees potential in the future to work with other clinical psychologists to better the experience of their patients.

“I want to impact the way people interact with mental health issues in Rwanda,” she said. “I want to encourage other mental health professionals to be more specialized so they’re better prepared to treat their patients. Maybe I can be one of the persons who creates platforms for such opportunities.”