Alumni Interview with Grace Cai

This interview was conducted over email with Grace Cai, a Clinical Psychology Doctoral Student at Fuller Theological Seminary, by Gargi Mahadeshwar, a third-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. Cai earned a B.A. in Global Health, a B.A. in Psychology, and a certificate in Human Rights Studies from Duke in 2019.

What has been your path to your current position? 
Before college, I already had an interest in mental health advocacy. I didn’t know what that meant professionally, but those interests led me to the human rights certificate and global health major. These disciplines provided frameworks for explaining and addressing mental health issues in a deeper way than psychological science can on its own. Over time, I realized that although I care deeply about systemic mental health interventions (e.g., policies that protect the right to mental health care), I first want the experience of being with individuals in their healing journeys as a clinician. Now, I am a clinical psychology doctoral student and working on a master’s in theology. I spent a year providing psychotherapy in a community mental health setting, and I am currently providing psychological testing for adolescents at risk for developing psychosis.


Which human rights issues do you engage with most directly and how?
My dissertation is on the moderating effects of activism and critical consciousness-raising on the relationship between racial discrimination and well-being among Asian Americans. Clinically, I strive to take seriously the environmental factors that impact mental health outcomes, particularly for people with marginalized identities. Psychological symptoms are not located solely in the individual; they are a reflection of injustice in the world. How can clinicians like myself expect to improve the health of our clients if our communities are subject to human rights violations, discrimination, and inadequate material resources? Mental health is a human right, and it reveals the interrelatedness of all human rights issues. 


How has your study of/passion for human rights influenced your life personally and professionally?
My commitment to justice is deeply rooted in my religious convictions. At the same time, I know that this does not resonate with everyone, especially given how religious ideologies have been used to perpetuate some of the worst human rights abuses throughout time. Human rights provide a separate moral and legal toolkit for partnering with people of diverse backgrounds in our collective desire for justice and healing in the world.


How did your Human Rights Certificate courses at Duke prepare you for your career?
Generally speaking, clinical psychology is individualistic and deficit-based. A systemic, moral, and legal approach to improving mental health outcomes and care is not inherent to the discipline of clinical psychology. My human rights and global health courses expanded my approach to mental health care to include not just the reactive treatment of individual symptoms but also the proactive transformation of systems of care.


What would you recommend to undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in human rights? 
Be creative! An interest in human rights does not mean you have to go into law, humanitarian work, or politics. What does it mean to protect and honor the inherent dignity, agency, and sacredness of human life wherever you go? Wherever you find yourself personally and professionally, there will be a need for human rights expertise.