When Amandeep Kaur Gill was growing up in Yuba City—the East Indian-born daughter of a Punjabi family who came to the United States when she was 5—she had already started to cultivate a strong sense of empathy.

Shopping in Walmart with her mother, Gill would help her translate English and feel other eyes in the store upon them. Her face would burn as the checkout line would pile up behind her family, along with scoffs and looks from impatient customers and cashiers, as Aman tried to help her mother understand and navigate the transaction. It’s a scenario she sees replayed too often, still to this day, and it never fails to bother her.

“I could tear up every time. I have this quality, and I’m not so sure that it’s a good one, where if someone’s hurting, I hurt with them,” said Gill, a graduate student set to earn her Master of Science in marriage and family therapy next spring. “But I can’t change that part of me. It’s how I grew up. Empathy is just really big.”

Amandeep Kaur Gill holds a plaque honoring her Outstanding Friend award, standing among her two brothers, mother, father, and baby niece.

The recipient of the Chris Hilbert Outstanding Chico State Friend award, Amandeep Kaur Gill attributes her empathy to growing up in a large, tight-knit family.

In April, Gill was formally recognized with the Chris Hilbert Outstanding Chico State Friend Award, a $5,000 scholarship. As assistant professor of psychology Kyle Horst wrote in his nomination letter, “no student is safe from Aman’s relentless pursuit of friendship. … To know Aman is to be known. She is approachable, compassionate, and authentic.”

Gill’s charismatic demeanor has been a major part of her thriving Chico State career since she arrived as a transfer student in 2014. Finishing her undergraduate degree in psychology in 2016, Gill found her calling in therapy. She soon discovered a love for cultivating relationships and joined Community Action Volunteers in Education (CAVE). Her work in her first program, Adopted Grandparent, earned an award from CAVE. Socializing with older adult residents at Sierra Sunrise Terrace on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the program was near to her heart because she’d never gotten to know her own grandparents. Gill would bring lunch and chat with the seniors, and with each new visit, she noticed more residents joining her group.

“They’re my people. I’m really an old person on the inside, so it was really nice to sit down and learn from them,” Gill said, a gleaming grin spread across her face. “I think I brought a good energy. They have the same routines every single day, so getting a different person in there who wants to do different things and listen to them was a nice change. It turns out that they love to talk, and all they wanted was for someone to come visit them.

Amandeep Kaur Gill smiles for a portrait“We forget they used to be brain surgeons, talented engineers. And that was a revelation for me,” she continued. “I got to have these amazing conversations about bio-psych, and what our brains can do. … It really hit me that what they appreciated was the fact that I wanted to be there.”

Gill has never had to feign enthusiasm in others’ lives, though. Part of a large family (her father is the youngest of seven children) and born of a culture that embraces collectivist family values, she finds it impossible to separate from the part of herself that wants to invest in others’ lives. That has manifested in the form of her learning as a therapist, and within her graduate student cohort, she shines as a friend.

Horst calls her “a true therapist’s therapist,” noting other students’ dependence on Gill as a stress outlet and source of support. She calls to check in on them after their own sessions with clients, because the emotional intensity of therapy can take its toll on the therapist.

Fellow psychology grad student and Friend Award nominator Mary Parker said Gill has been a willing friend of everyone in the cohort from her first day in the master’s program. Each February, she brings chocolate-covered strawberries to all of her colleagues (because, according to Parker, Gill says “no one should be without a Valentine”). During Thanksgiving break—typically a period of major decompression for therapy students dealing with the emotional exhaustion that inherently comes with their studies—Gill started her own tradition of hosting the holiday for her friends, classmates, and colleagues. After three years, it’s transformed into a regular potluck.

“I’m not sure how else to describe her,” Horst said, “than magnetic.”

The charisma and warmth she exudes stem from a genuine love of people. For Gill, kindness comes naturally.

“I do just really care and want to know everybody I come across and honor them, and that’s why I really love what I’m doing and the career I chose,” said Gill, whose work as a therapist has already begun as an intern at the campus Counseling and Wellness Center. “I’ve always wanted to feel connected. College can feel really crowded and distant, and I didn’t want that for myself or anybody else in my cohort. I wanted to leave this program knowing everybody.”

Gill acknowledges her family’s Punjabi and Sikh backgrounds often regard mental health as a taboo subject. Therapy, psychiatry, and psychology simply were not discussed as career options. Nonetheless, Gill discovered an affinity and love for mental health in psychology courses in community college, and set her path—and, after seeing the impacts she has made among her professors and cohort, her family has grown to celebrate her choice.

In addition to recognizing her innate proficiency as a therapist and all her academic success, when she was honored with the Chris Gilbert Outstanding Chico State Friend Award, her family—two older brothers and her parents—told her that reading the nomination letters meant more to them than the award itself.

Her long-term goal is to establish her own private practice in a city with a high East Indian population, like her hometown Yuba City, perhaps, and offer her services to those Punjabi- and Hindi-speaking communities. Her dream is to provide outreach and awareness of mental health among populations that have traditionally shied away from it.

“When you come from a different culture and you learn a new way of looking at it, I feel like you answer a lot of questions you never even thought to ask before,” Gill said. “It’s so important to not hide those discussions about mental health, to not keep them out of sight.”