Student Affairs; Student Affairs

A Fighting Stance

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Discipline, patience and a deep commitment to Clemson brought Birma Gainor to the matchup of her life: COVID-19 versus the mental health needs of Clemson University.

Birma Gainor, interim director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) for Clemson’s Student Health Services in the Division of Student Affairs, in a martial arts resting pose in a desert garden.
Birma Gainor, interim director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) for Clemson’s Student Health Services in the Division of Student Affairs, strengthened her role at the University during COVID-19 while also securing a new rank in the martial art she practices, Cuong Nhu.

Birma Gainor has three Clemson degrees, a deep commitment to diversity, and a black belt in taekwondo.

Gainor now also has the ultimate responsibility for bringing Clemson across the finish line of COVID-19 as the University copes with the pandemic’s impact on students’ physical and mental health. As of March 1, she is the newly appointed interim director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) for Clemson’s Student Health Services in the Division of Student Affairs, a natural step after spending the last year leading telehealth efforts that provide mental health services to students.

“We are currently all telehealth certified,” Gainor says of her team. But prior to COVID-19, no one on the CAPS staff had the certification.

She was one of the first in the department to secure it, something that required “the strong support of my co-workers,” she explains.

I can do things somebody else can’t do, and there’s no limitation on how strong I can be.

Birma Gainor, interim director of Counseling and Psychological Services for Clemson Student Health Services

That support is not that unlike martial arts, which Gainor has practiced since she was a doctoral student. She secured her black belt in taekwondo, and now she’s two steps below a black belt in Cuong Nhu. Translated, Cuong Nhu means “hard-soft,” and it blends forceful and striking moves (those that require greater strength) with more passive ones (those that deflect) that use the attacker’s force against him.

The philosophy behind the study of Cuong Nhu is one of continual self-improvement, community service and respect for others. It turns out, telehealth certification also required equal parts discipline and patience for the process. Gainor pushed through 26 hours of online training in fewer than two days to receive her certification. Her quick work and concerted effort proved essential to overcoming the challenges in front of her and her colleagues.

“The learning curve for how to best assist those in distress remotely — it was steep,” Gainor recalls. “We were patient with each other as colleagues, and our clients were patient with us, and we all were able to engage in new ways.”

Hard work, perseverance and ongoing collaboration, however, opened them up to new and different ways of using technology to serve struggling students — and not just those who they had traditionally worked with. Counselors found themselves providing support services to an increasingly broad and diverse cross section of the University. And along the way, Gainor earned her one black stripe in Cuong Nhu.

“I just fell in love with it,” she says of the skill, which was introduced to her by Master Darius Jones, a fellow Tiger Band member from her undergraduate years. “It is not competing with other people. It’s not trying to achieve some stretch goal. It is within your own ability and your own learning. I can do things somebody else can’t do, and there’s no limitation on how strong I can be.”

Birma Gainor, interim director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) for Clemson’s Student Health Services in the Division of Student Affairs seated in the Watt Center lobby

Likewise, she expects Clemson will emerge stronger from embracing opportunities and facing challenges it would not have experienced without the pandemic.

“Part of the challenge of working in mental health is advocating for and representing communities that might not traditionally seek mental health services,” Gainor says.

“This is a frightening time, but there’s so much potential here,” Gainor says. “It’s almost magical in the way this transition is happening. You have a rich tapestry to start drawing from because the change is so big. There’s the potential to do big things.

“I say, let’s see what we can do.”

Portrait of Birma Gainor, interim director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) in the Watt Center
Clemson alumnae Birma Gainor has been appointed interim director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)

Gainor ‘woven into’ Student Affairs, life at Clemson

Birma Gainor’s recent interim appointment as director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is merely the latest in a long history of connections to Clemson University’s Division of Student Affairs.

“I was an Orientation Ambassador back in 1993,” she said, “so I’m very woven into Student Affairs and life at Clemson.”
As a student leader, her charge was transitioning new students and their families into the Clemson experience.

Now, years later, she leads a team entrusted with the responsibility to address the growing demand for mental health services at her alma mater.

This is far from Gainor’s first go-round with CAPS, however.

“I started as a master’s level intern in 2002,” she said. “I was employed as a licensed counselor from 2003-06 and as I worked with the staff, it became obvious I wanted to look more into administrative roles with the field of student affairs and, specifically, counseling.”

She ultimately left CAPS to pursue a doctorate at the University of Georgia. After graduating with a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, she moved to Columbia, South Carolina and worked at a private, liberal arts women’s college in a single-person office. 

Columbia College provided the administrative experience she needed before Clemson came calling again in 2013 — this time as staff psychologist. She held the role for two years before moving into an assistant director position, paving the way for the recent interim appointment following Raquel Contreras’ retirement after more than 18 years with CAPS.

Interim Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Chris Miller called the appointment “well-deserved” and expects a seamless transition for both staff and students.
“Her ties to the department date to her time as a Clemson student,” Miller said. “I am confident Birma will do an outstanding job in this role.”

It’s a role she feels more than prepared for — thanks in large part to her roots in Student Affairs.