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McNair Scholar graduate heads to Michigan to pursue research on racial and ethnic identity

Abby Steven Arellanes, Kevin Martinez, Lisa Molina and Stephanie Miller attend the McNair Scholars banquet in 2015. Miller graduated Saturday from Westminster College and said the McNair program changed her course at the college. Photo by Stephanie Miller.

This spring, Stephanie Miller, a senior double majoring in psychology and sociology, will graduate from Westminster College as a McNair Scholar—a program she said has opened doors for her and helped grow her confidence in ways she never could have anticipated as a female college student of color.

In the fall, Miller will head to the University of Michigan for graduate school, where she said she will explore her interests in racial and ethnic identity and the impacts of racial microaggressions on Latinx students.

Miller said she wasn’t involved on campus for her first two years at Westminster College but said becoming part of the McNair Scholar program changed everything.

Since joining the program, Miller has been involved with many organizations on campus: the Diversity and Inclusion Center, the Sociology Club and Walkways to Westminster. She has also organized workshops to teach middle school students in South Salt Lake about college access.

“I definitely think getting involved on campus is what changed how I experienced Westminster,” Miller said. “I really did come in thinking that, ‘I’m just going to come in, get my degree and get out,’ but you really do build connections with people and that helps you figure out what you want to do.”

Dan Cairo, the director of the Diversity and Inclusion Center and Miller’s direct supervisor, said she is a valuable member of the team who contributes knowledge, conversations and insight that help shape the direction of the center.

Stephanie Miller, a senior psychology and sociology double major, presents her research on racial microaggressions against Latinx students at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology National Conference in San Diego, California. Miller graduated Saturday from Westminster College as a McNair Scholar—a program she said changed her course at the college. Photo by Dr. Jen Simonds.

Stephanie Miller, a senior psychology and sociology double major, presents her research on racial microaggressions against Latinx students at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology National Conference in San Diego, California. Miller graduated Saturday from Westminster College as a McNair Scholar—a program she said changed her course at the college. Photo by Dr. Jen Simonds.

“She’s been fantastic; I don’t want her to graduate. I want her to stay here,” Cairo said. “We sometimes forget that social justice work requires logistical planning. It’s one thing to have the passion but then you also have to figure out all of the little mechanisms that then have to happen.”

Cairo said he has enjoyed having someone in the center who is passionate about social justice, committed to the programming and thoughtful about getting the work done.

Miller’s McNair mentor, Jen Simonds, chair of the psychology department, has been co-supervising Miller’s research with Julian Mendez, a psychology professor. She said she takes pride in Miller’s success and enjoyed helping her through the process.

“Most students, especially students of color, struggle with the imposter syndrome,” Simonds said. “For high-achieving people, it’s thinking that you’re never good enough—you’re a fraud, you don’t belong here, this is isn’t for you. For students of color, and then you add women of color, it’s even worse because there are even more distinct messages from society of people actually saying things like that directly or indirectly.”

Simonds said this is something she has coached Miller about on a regular basis and has steadily seen her confidence increase.

“She just has such a solid center as a person that we can have the really hard conversations and I can challenge her, and that’s not true of everybody I’ve mentored,” Simonds said. “With Stephanie, I did an Airbnb with her. And let me tell you, there’s not many students I’d share a bathroom with.”

The Forum interviewed Miller about her time at Westminster and experience going through the McNair program.

Q: Can you describe Westminster College’s McNair program?

A: It’s meant to help diversify academia and give the tools for underrepresented students to go to grad school. Often, unrepresented students don’t have access to the information of how to apply to grad school, what it even is, what it looks like and what’s the purpose of it. McNair aims to fulfill that need and give research experience as well as [help individuals through] the grad application process.

They do workshops throughout the year, but the bulk of the McNair experience is in the summer. Typically, people will have two McNair summers.

The first summer, you do a group project with people from different majors. Throughout that summer, while you’re working on your research, they also do workshops breaking down grad school and what to expect. You do your research with a research mentor and then you present that research at UC Berkeley at the end of the summer. The second summer is the same thing, but you do the project by yourself.

I had a different McNair experience since I thought I was going to graduate sooner than I did. They told me I could get more out of it if I stayed an extra year. So, I did my first McNair summer just by myself, doing my own research, and then my second summer I went to the University of Michigan for a different summer program.

Q: What did you conduct your research on?

A: My research for my first McNair summer was looking at how racial microaggressions impact Latinx students’ levels of self-efficacy—so, their self-confidence to perform well in school and their levels of stress. I also looked at whether participating in diversity supporting groups on campus helps with any of those relationships and any negative impact racial microaggressions may have. Right now, I’m working on publishing that with my mentors: Jen Simonds, head of the psychology department, and Julian Mendez, an associate professor of psychology.

Q: What is your favorite memory from Westminster?

A: Honestly, I think McNair. That defined everything for me. Being a Latinx student on campus, there’s only a pocket of us—or students of color in general. McNair was an awesome space to connect with other students of color. We all have similar goals of being in academia; there were a lot of good bonding experiences.

Also, getting to present at UC Berkeley. I’ve done a couple of other conferences like at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in San Diego. That was my first national conference. I presented my McNair research. And then I went to one in Seattle and a couple weeks ago I went to MEChA conference with the Latinx club. That was an awesome way to end my time here. It was cool to be in that environment and realize that I can be here, too, and that I’m making a difference.

Also, the mentoring. Even though the majority of [my experience] has been outside of Westminster, I think that’s what keeps me going, too. Helping students get to where they need to [go] is what helps me keep doing to what I need to do to get where I need to go. It’s a mutual exchange.

Q: What do you love about Westminster?

A: The biggest thing that I love about Westminster is the ability to connect with your professors. That mentorship is what I feel like shaped me to go where I’m going. I’ve realized how important mentorship is to me, and so I’ve worked in different areas and different schools in the Salt Lake valley to be a mentor. That’s what makes me want to be a professor—so I can pay it forward and do what my professors did to help me. Just using the knowledge that I’ll gain and sharing with other underrepresented students and getting them to get where they want to go.

[Also], both Jen Simonds and Julian Mendez. I feel like I’m going to stay connected to them for a long time. They got me through everything and I’ve cried to both of them multiple times and they’ve just been super supportive and helped me. I feel like imposter syndrome can get really real. It’s thinking that you’re not good enough for what you’re doing. I feel like a lot of people experience that and there’s a lot of articles about how every grad student experiences it. During those times when I’m experiencing it, they

remind me of why I’m doing what I’m doing. Getting a degree is not just for me. It’s for my family and for my community, since Latinxs are underrepresented in academia, so I feel like it’s a win for all of us—not just me.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am going to move to Michigan to attend the University of Michigan in August. I’m in the personality and social context PhD program. I want to research how racial and ethnic identity develops depending on your social context—specifically how the racial composition of your neighborhood and community influences how you come to understand being a part of your racial or ethnic group.

Going beyond racial identity and everything, I think psychology, just like every other discipline, has a lot of room for growth in terms of decolonizing. The way it’s structured is based on methods that oppress different communities, and I think we need to get in there and decolonize that. So, I want to be teaching that.

I was born here and I grew up here, so I’m kind of ready to leave Utah and I don’t know if I’m going to come back. I for sure want to be a college professor. I’m leaning more towards a liberal arts college because, again, mentorship is the key to connect to students. I really want to go to a school in California. Maybe I’ll get my post doctorate at UCLA or something.

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