A portrait of professor Janelle Peifer in her office. She is a young black woman with long braids wearing a green and black dress, and she is sitting in a chair, smiling at the camera.

Curriculum Vitae

In session

From the classroom to podcasts to the TEDx stage, clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology Janelle Peifer takes a creative Sherlock Holmes approach to unpacking identity, trauma, and personal development, especially during the college years.

At the start of her class sessions, assistant professor of psychology Janelle Peifer often asks students to share three things: a high, a low, and a need.

“It helps me gauge where students are, how they’re feeling, and what they need from the class session,” she says.

Peifer herself is feeling like she’s in a pretty great place since joining the University of Richmond in fall 2021. Her teaching, research, and clinical experience — she is a licensed clinical psychologist — all dovetail in her ongoing professional exploration of students’ development during the college years — “an incredible period of infinite malleability and potential.”

Peifer examines how college students and recent graduates, especially those from historically marginalized groups, navigate issues of identity, culture, and mental health, particularly complex trauma. In an ongoing longitudinal study (now at seven years and counting), she has asked thousands of students about their values and life paths and posed the big question, “Why does college matter?” And she is dedicated to engaging in critical conversations about mental health and identity, equity, and inclusion not just on campus but far beyond, in public scholarship that spans from a popular podcast about the HBO program In Treatment to a recent TEDx talk. “Public scholarship is a duty and an imperative for us to think about how what we do can serve and better the world,” she says.


Forging her path

Peifer’s own life path had an oversized fork, with one branch leading to psychology and the other to a professional dance career. For high school, she attended a rigorous boarding dance academy where she trained in classical ballet for hours every day.

“There was this increasing realization that there were whole parts of myself that were harder to practice because dance is all consuming,” she says. “To be done at a very high level, dance requires an absolute immersion that blocks out all other aspects of your life and your mind. I found that I really liked intellectual engagement. I concluded that dance could always be involved in my life but without it being my profession.”

She continued to dance and choreograph as a creative outlet as she pursued her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Wake Forest University and doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia and during her six years as an assistant professor of psychology at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta. (She’s still looking for her “dance home” in Richmond.)

I love being in the classroom with students when they’re at this transition point.

Peifer was drawn to psychology by what she describes as “the Sherlock Holmes element” of it. “Growing up, I really loved Sherlock Holmes stories,” she says. “I loved the ability to use your mind and awareness to solve problems and put together the pieces of a puzzle. Often, in therapy and in research, it feels similar to that. It requires me to have this presence and ability to be empathetically attuned to people and to have the right pieces. Now I recognize even more it isn’t me coming in as an individual and figuring out the puzzle of another person but this cool process of putting the puzzle pieces together with your client in this collaborative way.”

Peifer didn’t envision a career in academia when she started at Wake Forest. As a Black woman, she didn’t see herself represented in the faculty. But one particular psychology faculty member, professor Lisa Kiang, an Asian American woman, took Peifer under her wing. “I was fortunate that Lisa went above and beyond to invest in me, mentor me, and show faith in my abilities,” Peifer says.

Kiang helped Peifer design and execute her first independent research project, at a home for orphaned girls in Kenya. In this “photo voice” project on self-esteem and self-construction, the girls took photos that reflected their identities, lives, and community.

“It was the first time I saw the artistry of research, where you’re able to take something that you care about — this question — and design something that needs to be clever, well-grounded, and innovative to respond to that question,” Peifer says. “So many of the questions I’m interested in, so many of the things I care about, the data is not there because the people who were asking the questions didn’t look like me. So I could feel viscerally this sense that I could contribute to the field in meaningful ways and bring perspectives that would enrich our understanding of psychological functioning.”


Still malleable, open, willing to learn

Peifer’s ongoing research — her “dream research project” that she launched in her final year of her doctoral program — takes a long-term perspective on college students’ development, particularly the development of their intercultural competence.

“I love studying emerging adulthood,” she says. “I see college as this space where you have this psychological openness that sets you on a pathway that can have ripple effects for communities and organizations. I love being in the classroom with students when they’re at this transition point, where they’re still malleable, still open, and still willing to learn.”

The longitudinal study involves thousands of students across three higher education institutions: Agnes Scott College, University of Redlands, and St. Mary’s College in Indiana. Peifer and her collaborator, Elaine Mayer Lee, provost at Goucher College, survey each cohort in their study right before they start college, follow up with them each year they’re in school, and check in on them a year after graduation. Then they will complete a capstone survey five years after graduation.

“You have this remarkable portrait of someone from the time they’re 17 or 18, into their mid-twenties,” she says. “You get this decade of information about their developmental path and see which experiences in college may have had — or not had — immediate impacts. People are able to reflect on and connect the dots of how they got to where they are.”

A black and white photo of professor Janelle Peifer in conversation with three of her students. The sit on a small couch and chairs around a coffee table with a whiteboard behind them containing class notes and diagrams.

The first cohort started college in 2015; its capstone interviews will take place in 2024. Results so far show that having diverse social relationships on campus — for example, in the classroom or in living/learning communities — can be even more transformative than travel-based experiences in fostering lasting empathy and connection with others. This knowledge can inform college faculty and administrators in their efforts to provide more inclusive education.

The coincidental timing of the study during the pandemic provided an unexpected additional lens through which to view students’ mental health. “We’re able to look at these students before and after the pandemic, and we see not only increased mental health concerns, but declines in empathy,” she says. “In many ways, institutions across the United States are plowing ahead like, ‘The pandemic’s over now; let’s get back to life.’ But in the classroom, we’re seeing similar burnout to what we’re seeing across the nation. The psychological toll of the pandemic caused a lot of disruptions of key social development moments for students that I think they’re still reconciling and making sense of. Institutions need to slow down and recognize how it may be showing up in ways that I think will have ripple effects for decades to come.”

The longitudinal study also prompts students to evaluate the big picture: What is the purpose of higher education? How does it shape the way that students see themselves and the world? How does it expand their minds from what they would have been had they stayed at home and not attended college?

“I’m interested not just in the impact on the individual, but on the community and the world,” she says. “It’s especially true for historically marginalized groups who haven’t had access to education and who are taking on enormous debt that college needs to have a financial payoff. So we do ask a lot about their professional outcomes. But we also ask about meaning and purpose and values. What is the meaning of the work that they do? How can it be utilized to serve not only themselves, but their community and the entire world in meaningful ways? As a faculty member, I think that’s our sacred duty to make sure that students see their education not just as a way to get a job and to take care of themselves, but to better the world.”


UR home

When Peifer read the University of Richmond’s call for applicants for her position, she sensed that she’d found a place where she could contribute in meaningful ways. The posting called for someone with training in mental health disparities and diversity sciences — check. It also stated the university’s commitment to developing a diverse workforce and student body and to modeling an inclusive campus community that values the expression of difference. “That was extremely compelling for me; I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she says. “I loved the idea of creating inclusion within the psychology department as well as within the broader institution so that it could yield the benefits of having a truly diverse and integrative educational experience.”

Peifer has worked diligently toward those aims since arriving on campus. She has led faculty training sessions on how taking a culturally informed and inclusive approach improves outcomes for all students. Doron Samuel-Siegel, professor of law, legal practice, worked with Peifer on a training for law school faculty. “Some participants might find themselves wondering, ‘Are these questions (of inclusion) intractable? Is this work I can really participate in?’” Samuel-Siegel says. “But the way that Janelle did her work and the information she communicated really allowed people to come away with a sense of practical applicability — to think not purely in aspirational terms, but with a sense that this is realistic and accomplishable.”

Peifer’s expertise in the role of identity and culture lends itself to a $625,000 grant awarded in November by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to an interdisciplinary team of faculty at University of Richmond. Peifer will work with colleagues Karen Kochel, associate professor of psychology, and Kristjen Lundberg, associate professor of social psychology, to develop a project to better understand belonging among college students, particularly those who are from historically underrepresented groups, and what institutions can do to foster a better sense of belonging and overall functioning for students. “It’s a really cool opportunity for the three of us to bring together our different skill sets and perspectives to look at the question of student belonging in a holistic way,” she says.

Just as Kiang did for Peifer at Wake Forest, Peifer is passionate about mentoring the next generation of clinical psychologists of color. She currently has six undergraduates in her research lab and is co-mentoring a seventh. “Undergraduate research is a really important way of building pipelines,” she says. “We have a huge representation and diversity problem in our field. Less than 5% of psychologists at the doctoral level are Black. One of the big issues is that we don’t engage students of color in early, frequent, and high-quality mentored research experiences, which are necessary if you’re going to later get into those doctoral-level programs.”

Then there’s the informal mentoring that simply happens in the course of, well, Peifer’s courses. Like when she starts a class session by turning off the lights and leading students through a guided meditation. “It really helped me to calm down and prepare for class,” says Yangyue Li, ’24, a psychology major. “You can tell she really cares about her students.”

Undergraduate research is a really important way of building pipelines. We have a huge representation and diversity problem in our field. Less than 5% of psychologists at the doctoral level are Black.

Or when she welcomes students to her home. She purposely chose to live close to campus so that she would have more opportunities to attend her students’ events and connect with them outside of the classroom. “Getting students out of the classroom enables you to see and hear different sides of them,” she says. “You can make connections between their background and identity, who they are and what they care about, and how it’s relevant to what we’re talking about in class.”

And they get to know her better, too. Peifer considers herself a huge nerd who has always been into works of fantasy. She is fluent in Harry Potter and Star Wars and plays Magic the Gathering. She relishes working pop culture references into her classes. “I’ll name-check programs in my class and encourage them to consume different media because that helps bring these topics we’re talking about to life,” she says. For example, one doesn’t need to dig too deeply into movies like Wakanda Forever or Encanto to find vivid examples of intergenerational trauma.

She could teach a whole class on her favorite TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or the works of H.P. Lovecraft. “Fantasy is very much about imagining new futures and other worlds — how things could be, not how they are,” she says. “There’s infinite potential of creation.”


Sharing knowledge where it's most needed

Peifer is dedicated to sharing her own creative output and expertise far beyond academic circles. Her public scholarship takes many forms: serving as a source for reporters, sharing mental health tips on Instagram, and publishing her research in open-access journals that don’t require costly subscriptions. “I knew if I was going to be in higher ed that I didn’t want to be in an ivory tower where the production of knowledge is kept away from the people who can most benefit from it,” she says.

Her guest appearance on the podcast Therapy for Black Girls — another example of her public scholarship — led to the thrilling invitation to co-host In Session, the official podcast for the HBO drama series In Treatment. The show’s fourth season follows Brooke Taylor, a Black psychiatrist, as she helps a trio of patients grapple with their complex issues while working through her own. In the podcast, Peifer and her co-host, writer-actor Brandon Kyle Goodman, break down the episodes, demystify the therapy process, and examine the relationship between therapist and client.

“I enjoyed the opportunity to reflect not only the therapeutic process that centers on the client, but to zoom out to think about, ‘Who is the psychologist? What are the pressures of being a Black woman clinician sitting in that chair? What are the responsibilities, the joys, and gifts that come with that process?’” Peifer says.

Listeners reached out to Peifer to express their appreciation. “People told me they’ve never felt seen or validated in that way, and that felt really cool,” she says. Peifer and the podcast also have fans within the Richmond psychology department.

“It’s wonderful that Janelle has the outlet she does to talk about things that aren’t always discussed,” says Camilla Nonterah, assistant professor of health psychology and one of Peifer’s colleagues. “The work that Janelle is doing — to disseminate her knowledge in ways that communities can digest it, share those real examples of what people may be experiencing, and be able to connect — is extremely empowering.”

For their final episode, Peifer and Goodman interviewed the star of In Treatment, Uzo Aduba, who has won three Emmy Awards and is best known for her role Crazy Eyes in the prison drama Orange Is the New Black. “How she described preparing for the role of Brooke is indicative of her understanding the importance and relevance of representing something that, within the Black community in particular, is still in its nascent stages of being acceptable and destigmatized,” Peifer says. “It was wonderful to hear someone with her platform being really conscientious and thoughtful about that responsibility and recognizing the intricacies of the work we do as psychologists.”

In her own clinical practice at the Center for Inclusive Therapy and Wellness, Peifer specializes in trauma-based care and particularly enjoys working with high-achieving “badass change-making women and nonbinary folks.” “They’ve checked every box and are at this point of, ‘What now? Is this it? Where’s the joy? Where’s the freedom for me to actually bask in what I’ve achieved?’ For many of them, the act of rest and joy is revolutionary because they’ve been told their entire life that they are what they do.”

Peifer drew on that very theme for her TEDx talk in Richmond in November. In her talk, “The Freedom to Rest,” Peifer examined how our hustle culture has diminished the value and practice of rest. “Right now, in this era of massive burnout, exhaustion, disillusionment, our bodies, our minds, and spirits are calling out for rest,” she told the audience, and she shared three tips for restorative rest (see sidebar).

Peifer admitted to the audience, “I think it’s important that I self-disclose: I’m a hypocrite.” Given her many roles — psychologist, assistant professor, wife, and mother of two young children — rest is difficult for her, too.

How does she meet that need in her own life? She bikes to work each day. “Like most academics, I have a tendency to push myself to my limit with no breaks built into my day,” she says. “Biking becomes a moment where I can only focus on the wind, the sky, the trees, and the fact that I am alive in this viscerally freeing way.”

She also reads a ton of books, much of it fantasy, of course. There’s family board game night. And with her kids, there’s dancing — lots of dancing — around the living room.


Kristin Baird Rattini is a freelance writer.