Wednesday, May 8, 2024

For the love of art (therapy): UTSA graduate Grace Johnson dreams big for new programs

For the love of art (therapy): UTSA graduate Grace Johnson dreams big for new programs

MAY 8, 2024 — Double major Grace Johnson will cross the stage this month — twice. She will cross once as a student in the UTSA College for Health Community and Policy for her degree in psychology, and again for her degree in art from the UTSA College of Liberal and Fine Arts.

Johnson, who is also an Honors College graduate, pursued this unusual combination of majors to further her ambition to become an art therapist.

“Art therapy is a proven, research-backed science, but there are no academic programs for it in Texas. My goal one day is to change that,” said Johnson, who will enroll in Syracuse University’s Master of Science in Art Therapy program in New York this fall.

For Johnson, art therapy is personal. Like many others, she struggled during the pandemic and had a hard time academically in high school. She found painting to be a way to cope and work through those issues.

“It would be amazing if I could come back, maybe with a doctorate or research credentials, and start the first art therapy program.”

Johnson graduated high school in 2020 with big plans to move away from her tiny town of Sealy, Texas, to study music. The pandemic, which prompted all universities to transition to hybrid learning for several years, threw a wrench into those plans. Instead, she enrolled in a junior college, thanks to a scholarship, and studied music.

“I was raised by a single mom and maybe because of that, I always put 101% into everything I do,” Johnson said. “But soon it became clear that this was not the right path for me.”

Encouraged by her junior college professors and her mother, Johnson decided to transfer to UTSA. She changed her major from music to psychology — the new program offering an area of study wide enough to encompass art therapy, but scientific enough to learn the methodology behind it.

UTSA also offered Johnson the opportunity to get her degree from an established institution and to be close to home.

“A lot of my extended family lives in San Antonio,” she said. “Being away from home for the first time, I wanted to be near family.”

During her time at UTSA, Johnson served as a mentor for the First Generation and Transfer Student Programs, as a researcher in the Trauma and Health Research in Veterans' Experiences (THRIVE) lab and as president of the Student Psychology Association at UTSA. 

Always an ambitious person, Johnson knew she wanted to get involved in as many groups and clubs as possible. However, she approached research with trepidation.

“Math has never been a strong suit of mine, and I had no idea what research entailed,” she said. “But I found the THRIVE lab, and it’s been so wonderful to be involved with all of this research.”

Researchers in the THRIVE lab study trauma psychology, particularly in the context of veteran support. Johnson found this research particularly helpful for her future plans. That experience also prompted Johnson to present at various research conferences.

“I’m proud of Grace,” said Sandra Morissette, lab director and chair of the UTSA Department of Psychology. “She contributed to the THRIVE lab and gained critical research experience to successfully compete for admission into a top graduate school that will help her focus on both art and psychology.”

What has been most near and dear to Johnson’s heart is her work with the first-generation and transfer student programs. Forty five percent of undergraduate students at UTSA are first-generation college students and 40% are transfer students.

The programs, however, are a resource that Johnson feels are both underutilized and overlooked.

“I wouldn’t have been able to adjust to college without this resource, and I wish more students knew about it,” she said. “The office can help students navigate through college, but it also offers on-campus employment, which is huge for students like me that needed to stay on campus to work.”

Through all these activities, Johnson also managed to put together her first exhibition in April. Comprised of 26 pieces, 13 in the Student Union and 13 in the art building, her pieces were all mental-health themed. At the opening, attendees received informational pamphlets on the importance of art therapy and how to become an art therapist.

She selected art therapist Sarah Peters to serve as juror of the show. The two met years ago when Peters served as a guest speaker for the Student Psychology Association.

The full-circle moment was a meaningful way to cap off her career at UTSA, Johnson said.

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In the coming years, Johnson plans to complete her master’s program, to earn her licenses and certifications, to start a career in New York and to return to Texas once she’s established.

“I really don’t want to leave my home to practice my chosen career,” she said. “It would be amazing if I could come back, maybe with a doctorate or research credentials, and start the first art therapy program.”

And her top destination for that innovative degree program?

“I would love to return to UTSA one day and see an art therapy program for students implemented,” she said. “In the meantime, I’m ready to gain as much knowledge as I can so I can help people and make a difference.”

Amanda Cerreto

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of The University of Texas at San Antonio.

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