Pace Awards Its First Doctor of Philosophy Degrees
Beginning in fall 2013, the Department of Psychology on the Pleasantville campus announced Pace University’s first PhD in Mental Health Counseling program. It is one of the few programs in the country specifically offering a doctorate in mental health counseling.
Sara Juncaj ‘09 ’17 is one of the early graduates of the program, and her journey to a doctorate began in a place far from Pace and unfamiliar to most.
The road to opportunity
Albanian by heritage, Juncaj was born in Podgorica, Montenegro, a country that at the time was a part of Yugoslavia and under Communist rule. Its landscape is one of immense natural beauty, dotted with vast lakes, rugged mountains and quaint medieval villages. Its people, however, possessed limited rights, with work opportunities distributed selectively and not based on skills or interests. Due to these circumstances, her family came to the United States when she was three years old. They first settled in Hamtramck, Michigan, where distant family members lived, and eventually established themselves in New York. Before long, her parents had built a better life for their family, with her father working multiple jobs in construction, and her mother tending to the home.
“The number one reason my parents moved to America was so I could have a better education. They always believed that education brings more opportunities. I became a firm believer of this and witnessed it to be true.” Like 40% of students enrolled at Pace this fall semester, Juncaj is of the first-generation of her family to pursue a degree in higher education.
Obstacles faced and support received
For Juncaj, and many first-generation students, mentorship in the form of social support has been essential. This was difficult to obtain from her family, who struggled with challenges of assimilation, such as learning a new language and being unaware of services available to immigrants. Juncaj, however, found that support at Pace.
As a student both in the Master’s and PhD in Mental Health Counseling programs, Psychology faculty were always available and encouraged her to attend conferences and workshops, which led to greater professional development and networking among the mental health community. As a doctoral student, she was also awarded a PhD in Mental Health Counseling Doctoral Research Grant.
Says Juncaj, “My Pace mentors have helped me achieve my goals and always believed in me. Everyone was supportive and encouraged me to strive to be the best I could be.”
At times, Juncaj struggled with cultural expectations and her family’s inability to relate to her commitment to her studies, when absent from special occasions such as weddings. She wondered if they truly understood, and also felt guilt.
However, they were always supportive and could not have been happier for her success. Referring to both her biological and Pace family, she says, “my family and Pace faculty played a major role in my journey to a PhD. I will never forget the smiles and joy my parents displayed at graduation and the day of my defense. They are beyond proud and continue to share their joy with me.”
Paying it forward
Juncaj pursued counseling as a career path because she always wanted to help individuals understand themselves and seek emotional balance during times of distress.
Her doctoral research topic reflected this purpose, and was also close to her heart. Married to a New Windsor, New York detective, she researched the predictors of job satisfaction among police officers, and how “flow,” an energized mental state of immersion in an activity, may be an additional determinant of well-being in this demanding and stressful occupation.
Her dissertation faculty adviser, Associate Professor Paul Griffin, who is also the director of the doctoral program, praises Juncaj as a “star student” whose research topic was quite ambitious and analyzed a group that had never been previously studied in this way.
Juncaj currently works as a therapist for a private practice. On the power of counseling, she says, “I believe that individuals have the potential to grow and change in effort to foster emotional and physical well-being if given unconditional support and guidance.” It looks like Juncaj’s story has come full circle.