KSU alum aspires to meet mental health needs in rural communities

Austin Peek
Austin Peek

KENNESAW, Ga. (Jun 10, 2020) — Kennesaw State University alumnus Austin Peek knows first-hand the importance of mental health resources being available in small, rural communities, and he plans to help address that need through a career as a clinical mental health counselor.

Peek, who earned his psychology degree from KSU as an Honors graduate this spring, will pursue a master’s in counseling from East Tennessee State University starting this fall. Peek aspires to run his own counseling practice to serve people in rural areas, drawing inspiration from growing up in a small town and needing to drive more than an hour to another county every week for treatment of his anxiety.

“It would have been so much easier if I could have seen a psychologist in my town, or even 30 minutes away,” Peek said. “A lot of psychologists don’t come to rural areas because they think it’s harder to maintain business and make enough profit. However, seeing how much that counseling positively impacted me, I want to do that for people who are in the same situation I was in.”

Peek credits Kennesaw State for preparing him well for the next step in his education and his career plans. He was active in KSU Journey Honors College, in the Great Books cohort and as an Honors Ambassador. Peek also was a research assistant in multiple research labs within the Department of Psychological Science, and he served in leadership roles in KSU’s chapter of the Phi Sigma Pi national honor fraternity.

“I knew during my first year at KSU that it was the right place for me,” Peek said. “Even though Kennesaw State is a big school, it still has a close-knit, small-school feel. There are many, many opportunities for students to get involved in organizations and activities at KSU that will benefit them in the long run.”

As a senior, Peek won the Outstanding Capstone for Honors award for the Kennesaw Campus, for research he and psychology program coordinator Dorothy Marsil conducted related to military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In their study, Marsil and Peek created a hypothetical scenario in which a military veteran is accused of committing a violent crime; however, the veteran, traumatized from a brain injury suffered in combat, claims he experienced a PTSD flashback, blacked out and had no memory of the crime occurring.

Marsil and Peek applied different psychological and neurological evidence to the scenario, and more than 200 respondents to the study answered questions reflecting whether their decisions as jurors would be influenced by the type of evidence presented at trial and the amount of mental health treatment the veteran had received. Peek was invited to present the research this spring at the Southeastern Psychological Association annual meeting in New Orleans, but the event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Peek already was well-versed in research methods prior to his Honors capstone, from having been involved in two other psychological research labs. One was a behavioral study with Jennifer Willard, associate chair of psychological science, on whether interpersonal relationships have any influence on someone falsely confessing to a crime, and one was with associate professor Katherine White analyzing whether people respond differently to criticism from people within their same racial group than from outside of it.

“I was able to have that experience where I was working directly with a professor with research, as opposed to being under a doctorate student who’s in contact with the professor,” Peek said. “With Kennesaw State being an R2 designated research institution, you get to have more experiences with research that you wouldn’t necessarily get going to an R1 or a bigger school.”

In addition to his experience conducting research, Peek said he gained invaluable leadership skills as vice president and then president of Phi Sigma Pi. Peek also appreciated that the fraternity’s diverse membership enabled him to see different perspectives, which he said will benefit him later when he is providing counseling to different types of people.

It all added up to a one-of-a-kind Kennesaw State experience for Peek, a first-generation college student.

“I was the first one in my immediate and extended family to graduate from a four-year university,” Peek said, “so it feels amazing to say, ‘I’m a college graduate’ on top of all the wonderful experiences I was able to have while at KSU.”

– Paul Floeckher

Photos submitted

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu