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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Cheryl Woods Giscombe feels deep commitment to public service

woods-giscomb_cheryl_400It would have been easy for Cheryl Woods Giscombe and her older sister to think they might be a little better than others. But their parents would not permit it.

Half the people in their hometown of Roxboro were white, the other half black, and most worked in factories or on farms. There were twice as many people who had not finished high school as had graduated from college.

Robert and Cynthia Woods met at N.C. Central University, where Giscombe’s father earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and her mother earned a degree in business education.

Born in Chapel Hill in 1976, Giscombe was still a tyke when her father and a classmate became the second and third African-American students to graduate from Carolina’s dental school.

The family moved to Roxboro after her father received a grant to provide dental care in a rural community. He used his dental office for something else as well – to make sure his daughters understood the value of hard work.

“He never allowed us to think that we were more than or better than anyone else,” Giscombe said. “After Sunday dinner, my sister and I would go with him to his office. We vacuumed, dusted and cleaned the bathrooms.”

Getting a good education would not only make a difference in their lives, they were told, it also could help improve the lives of others.

Giscombe’s mother worked as a social worker in the county welfare office when there were no teaching positions available. She often opened her heart, and their home, to her clients.

Once, when her mother was on-call, she brought an abandoned girl home and fed her supper, Giscombe said.

“She also had a client who was in a nursing home and after business hours, she would go visit him because he did not have any family,” she said. “And she would take us with her.”

Those visits continued for the rest of the man’s life, even after her mother left the agency to teach.

“She deeply influenced me,” Giscombe said.

Service as second nature

Giscombe carried that strong commitment to service with her when she attended the N.C. School of Science and Math in Durham. It also went with her to N.C. Central, where a new chancellor, Julius Chambers, had made public service a graduation requirement.

She graduated summa cum laude with a degree in psychology before heading to Stony Brook University to pursue her doctorate to become a psychologist.

It was there – while conducting research for her mentor in the waiting room of an OB-GYN clinic – that she began to feel a powerful pull toward something else.

“I was able to observe the nurse practitioner and was amazed at the deep rapport she had with her patients,” Giscombe said. “She just seemed so happy – like she was walking on air.”

Giscombe began to think she would like to be a nurse. When she discussed her plans with her doctoral mentor, Marci Lobel, she was surprised that Lobel did not try to dissuade her. It was Lobel’s research about stress in women contributing to higher rates of premature deliveries that Giscombe was assisting.

Instead, Lobel said: “I understand your motivation. You may want to think how the two degrees might work together – how your work as a nurse could enhance your research, and how your research could make you a better nurse.”

It wasn’t evident at the time, but Lobel had just laid out the blueprint of purpose Giscombe would use to guide the rest of her career.

The cost of being ‘superwoman’

In summer 2012, Giscombe became a member of the inaugural 40 Under 40 Class, an elite group of N.C. Central alumni recognized for accomplishments in their fields and for being exemplars of truth and service.

Later that year, the Council for the Advancement of Nursing Science Awards Committee selected her for a 2012 Brilliant New Investigator award.

Much of that recognition stems from the “Superwoman Schema,” the theoretical framework Giscombe developed exploring the physiological cost paid by African-American women as they present an image of strength to the world. And that cultural imperative affects African-American women at both ends of the economic and educational spectrum, Giscombe said.

The model grew out of her Ph.D. dissertation, which she completed in 2005, the year after Giscombe returned to Chapel Hill to work as a psychiatric nurse at UNC Hospitals.

Giscombe reported her findings in “Superwoman Schema: African-American Women’s Views on Stress, Strength, and Health,” an article that appeared in the May 2010 issue of Qualitative Health Research Journal.

The paper detailed how health disparities between African-American and white women (including higher rates of adverse birth outcomes, lupus, obesity and untreated depression) can be partially attributed to cultural factors that influence how African-American women cope with stress.

Some of Giscombe’s insights were based on research, some on her own experience.

At Stony Brook, for instance, Giscombe did something never before attempted there: she pursued an undergraduate degree in nursing through an accelerated 12-month program while continuing to work on her doctorate.

By any measure, the achievement was extraordinary, but Giscombe paid a heavy price: she developed cluster headaches that were so debilitating she had to take time off. When she returned to school, a counselor gave her a book on “mindfulness meditation” to help her cope.

Based on ancient meditation practices, mindfulness meditation was popularized in the United States by Jon Kabut-Zinn in the 1980s as a way to reduce anxiety, depression and stress by concentrating on current thoughts, feelings and surroundings.

In 2009, two years after winning a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, Giscombe and her research partner, Susan Gaylord, started a research project to examine how African-American women could practice mindfulness meditation to reduce their risk of developing diabetes.

Ambition is a wonderful thing, Giscombe said, “but we all need to take care of ourselves so that we can be well, happy and whole.”

Passing the torch

Giscombe met her husband when they were students at N.C. Central. They married in 2000 while they were in graduate school in New York.

A part-time acupuncturist who also teaches mindfulness meditation at UNC Hospitals, Kessonga Giscombe spends a good deal of time caring for the couple’s two daughters.

In 2010, after Cheryl Woods Giscombe passed the exam to become a board-certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, she began offering mental health services on a part-time basis at CAARE Inc., a nonprofit community agency in downtown Durham that offers free medical care to underserved groups, including a substance abuse treatment program.

Their oldest daughter, Zuri, was only 5 at the time, but Giscombe began taking her along so she could listen and learn and develop an understanding for the people she saw there.

But Giscombe was amazed at how much her daughter could already see.

On the drive into town, she saw motionless men lying on the sidewalk and asked her mother what they were doing there – and learned about homelessness.

Thereafter, whenever they drove by a homeless woman holding a sign asking for food, Zuri would beseech her mother to stop: “Mommy, do you have a banana to give her? Mommy, do you have an apple? Mommy, do you have any money to give her?”

Then Zuri got the idea to start a “Kids CAARE Club” so children could help the people at the agency. Last year, she wrote Sharon Elliott-Bynum, the co-founder of CAARE, for permission.

Over the holidays, the club’s 16 members carried out the “Change for Change” project, which involved collecting money from family members to give to the people at CAARE.

Among the newest members of the club is Zola, Giscombe’s 4-year-old daughter. Like her parents, Giscombe knows that it is never too early to begin guiding a child’s heart.

See Giscombe’s TEDxNCSSM talk, “Take the Time.”