From social injustices and racial discrimination to religious and political differences, conflict seems omnipresent in the world today and it is taking a toll on the collective psyches of the American people. As a psychologist, educator and researcher, Shelly Prillerman Harrell, PhD, ’78, focuses much of her work on multicultural and community psychology and ways to help people of color, so many of whom face these conflicts and prejudices each day.
“I’ve loved being a therapist and that feeling of helping people in need,” says Harrell, who serves as professor of psychology at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education & Psychology in Los Angeles, Calif. She is also a respected researcher with a lengthy list of studies to her name.
Her skills as a professor stem in part from watching her mother, she says, who was a schoolteacher. Her ability to lecture an auditorium full of college students, however, no doubt has something to do with her natural talent as a performer. While a student at Kingswood, she was passionate about dance.
“My strongest memories of Kingswood came out of performing,” says Harrell. “That was my identity as a student. I’m a dancer at heart. There were so many friendships made through the dance company and theater productions.”
Working with legendary Cranbrook dance instructor Jessie Sinclair, Harrell began choreographing her own pieces in addition to performing with the dance company, whether in school musicals or on a life-changing trip abroad to Venezuela, where the group performed at venues throughout the country. “I had not been out of the country before, except for Canada,” Harrell says. “It was life-changing for me.”
As a senior at Cranbrook, Harrell earned early acceptance to Harvard University. Although she wanted to pursue dance as a profession, the untimely death of her father, who had long wanted her to be an attorney, inspired her to consider other career paths. So, too, did a master class with Sarah Yarborough from the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, who described for Harrell what life as a dancer was like. Those stories helped Harrell realize “that I didn’t want to train eight hours a day, get sore feet and have no money,” Harrell shared.
She chose to pursue a degree in psychology and found that she enjoyed it, especially the research assistantships she landed with leading practitioners, including Dr. Alvin Pouissant, the renowned psychiatrist known for his research on the effects of racism in African American communities. “We looked at prejudice and how people succeed in the context of racism,” Harrell says. “From then on, I felt I could do this and make a difference.”
Today, Harrell’s focus is on resilience-oriented stress management. “A lot of stress management today looks at managing the physical feelings of being stressed,” she says. “Longer-term management of stress has different aspects, though, because stress will never go away completely. Managing stress effectively in our lives requires a bigger perspective.”
Building resilience can help transform the way people cope with their stressors. “Resilience is about cultivating the strengths – both inner and outer – to be able to manage the stressors coming your way.”
She and her colleagues are working to create resilience-oriented stress management programs that will be adaptable in a broad range of settings, something needed to do as more and more people are coming into conflict with their families, colleagues and friends over sociopolitical disagreements and issues.
“What happens in the world affects our well-being,” she says. “We’re seeing more people saying their stress is due to external climate and not their personal issues. We want to look at how we can begin to address these issues and heal and try to improve how we are to each other as human beings.”
As daunting and as seemingly intractable as these problems may seem, the pursuit of promising solutions continues to inspire Harrell. “When things are challenging,” she says, “I want to dive in and help.”