Dr. Shawna Charles puts a psych degree to work at her boxing gym

Breakthroughs sometimes happen without the glitz and glamour: in a gritty boxing gym, lighting low, music thumping, and people grunting as they smash their fists into punching bags. For Dr. Shawna Charles ’13, a PhD in Psychology graduate, this is where she’s changing people’s lives—from the outside in.

As the owner of The Boxing District, a gym in Los Angeles, Charles says she reaches more people than she ever would have as a clinical psychologist. That was her initial goal when she enrolled at Walden in 2006. “Today, I want to be an advocate, not a therapist,” she says.

Her drive comes from her own experience. “The gym wasn’t even for sale when I bought it,” Charles says. “But right after I finished my degree at Walden, I started going there to work out. I loved the way I felt when I left that gym. I felt powerful, like I could conquer the world. I needed to hold on to that feeling for my own sanity.”

She knew she could impact her community if she could just pair her degree with the right venue. “I wanted to share that feeling I got at the gym with other people,” Charles says. So she had her lawyer talk to the owner; soon after, she was a small business owner.

Her background in psychology helps her expand the role of The Boxing District. Perhaps the biggest advantage is that its clients are people who would have likely never taken advantage of the services of a counselor. The gym, instead, provides people the help they need outside the traditional therapy paradigm.

Shawna Charles

“I remember one day I was working out with a client on the treadmill, and she just started crying. She shared some really personal things,” Charles says. “Later, she sent me a long text message, thanking me for listening to something she’d held on to since she was a child. She said it was cathartic.

“That is what this gym is for. I’m providing a service, a gym, and an ear to talk to. Everyone who walks into a gym for the first time is making himself or herself vulnerable,” she says. “You have to be open to trying something new, something different.”

Charles uses that openness to observe, build rapport, and connect people with the services they need. “Being able to direct clients to a resource that fits their needs moments after they walk into the gym, they don’t expect that.”

But that’s just what she does: On her intake forms, she asks people if they’re military veterans and connects them with local organizations. Constantly looking for opportunities to help her clients, Charles is taking the Walden mission back to its roots on her gym floor.

“If I touch one person at a time, and they touch one person, and it becomes infectious, then I’ve done what I wanted to do,” she says. “I want these doors to be open so I can sow this seed of social change.”

Shawna Charles (right). Photo credit: Martin Herbst

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