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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Amber Williams

“Sometimes I wish I could take U-M and plug it into a much warmer climate.” Many a graduate student has had the same sentiment, particularly during some of the cold winters we’ve experienced the last couple of years. Born and raised in Houston, Texas and a graduate of nearby Rice University, Amber still feels the southern heat of her childhood. Still, coming so far north to Michigan was an easy choice for this 5th year developmental psychology Ph.D. candidate.

Amber knew she wanted to do research that examined how children think about race and how early attitudes affect children’s perceptions of and behaviors toward people in their own and other racial groups. She applied widely to grad schools but found U-M stood apart from other schools. She explains, “It was very different here, the way people talked about their advisors. I hadn’t seen that level of enthusiasm and support for students and for students of color. It was and has been above and beyond here, and particularly in the psychology department. I really see that there’s genuine support for diversity, and that it is taken very seriously. For example, there has been active recruitment of students and faculty of color.”

Amber’s life experiences have shaped her research interests. She explains, “I went to a school with a large White population and that helped shape my perceptions of my personal racial identity, how other people viewed me as a Black girl, and what it generally meant to be Black. It wasn’t a negative experience; I received a great deal of encouragement and mentoring from amazing friends and teachers who were extremely supportive, many of whom I am still in touch with today. But it was an interesting, and sometimes difficult experience being in the minority in the school, but I didn’t think until college about how that affected me and my identity. In college I took courses examining Black racial identity and resilience from slavery to the present day and read books by Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin, to name a few. So I became interested in studying how people develop attitudes about race and how African American families ensure positive development for their children in mainstream societies where they are often marginalized. I believe these issues can make a big difference in children’s lives, as it did in mine.”

One aspect of Amber’s research is to examine African American adolescent positive development: “I want to know how African American parents send positive messages about race to their children in direct and indirect ways, by doing things like having Afrocentric items in the home, taking them to African American museums or having direct conversations about race and pride in being Black. I’m interested in how African American parents send messages to counteract potential negative messages from mainstream society about what it means to be Black and how adolescents internalize these messages into their identity and how it impacts their academic outcomes and psychological well-being.”

In one of her studies, she is examining the role parents perceive race will play in their young children’s education. She says, “We are looking at what role parents think race will play in their children’s schooling, what factors they use to determine the extent to which race will play a role, and how they see themselves intervening in case race does play a role. I’ve found a variety of answers, and ultimately the racial composition of the school is important to parents – they want their children to attend diverse schools, giving them exposure to different cultures and learning styles. Parents also consider teachers to be crucial in setting the tone for the racial climate of the school context as well.”

In another line of research, Amber seeks to understand at what point in development and under what circumstances do children essentialize race. She says, “I’m interested in exploring whether children believe that individuals of different racial groups have underlying structural, fundamental differences that may allow for judgments about those individuals’ characteristics and behaviors. This work has implications for racial stereotyping and the ways people interact with people of different racial backgrounds. For example, if a person believes there are fundamental differences between people of different racial groups, that person may be less likely to befriend someone of a different racial group because they see themselves as different from that individual in important ways.” She is exploring some of this work in her dissertation, which examines whether children believe race factors into which traits people inherit.

Collecting data for her dissertation has been a long process, but Amber’s enjoyed working with the kids she’s interviewed and is really excited about the potential outcomes. She says, “This has been an amazing experience, but it can be quite stressful as well. Grad school is really difficult, partially because there are so many iterations of everything: write, review, revise, and on and on. It can be very frustrating. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get good results or be published as a result. The hardest part is the unknown of it all. Being on the job market now is difficult as well; it’s like a job in and of itself.”

Despite the difficulties, Amber has found solace in the social support she receives from colleagues and faculty mentors. She was in a very small cohort of grad students when she came to U-M in 2010, but found a home in her department. She describes, “I found the advanced grad students to be really helpful and supportive. I was just amazed at how much camaraderie there was. There was this sense of responsibility to look out for those who were newer.” She has seen that closeness continue. “When students start their week of prelims, the year ahead gives them a care package. It’s things like that that really enhance the community. It is very supportive, and not competitive in a negative way. This makes it a great department, one where people can collaborate, critique each other’s work, and write papers together.” It helps to have strong faculty support as well. Ambers says, “My faculty advisors, Rob Sellers and Stephanie Rowley are my mentors – I’ve received amazing mentoring here.”

Amber has found community here at U-M, something that can be hard to do at a large, decentralized research institution. Much of that she found at Rackham. She remembers, “When I first got here, being a part of SCOR (Students of Color of Rackham) was a great way to get to know people. I got involved in a Bible study for grad students, and the Rackham and SCOR programming, amazing speakers, and level of support were really helpful. I’m also a Rackham Merit Fellow. Some programs give lip service to diversity, but Rackham puts their money where their mouth is. It really isn’t just something I say. I talk to people at conferences who don’t meet people like them in their programs. A lot of psych graduate students eventually return to U-M post graduation for faculty positions and I understand why. I’m extraordinarily lucky to be here. The Rackham Building and the infrastructure are also really important in helping grad students feel like a coherent body, and not just random departments and labs. Being part of these programs challenges you to break down your work to others outside your department – and have the valuable experience to meet people outside your field.”

Off campus and at home, Amber has to turn off the research and writing that is the focus of her day and find ways to decompress. She tells us how: “Cooking and baking have been major stress reducers for me. You have this formula, this recipe that can transform simple ingredients into something delicious and useful. In comparison to a dissertation, it’s nice to have a finished product. I also take advantage of all opportunities to be around other people, game nights, movie nights. We play a lot of Taboo and Mafia.”

A fifth year doctoral candidate, Amber is pursuing a postdoc position while she continues her research and is planning to eventually pursue a tenure-track faculty position at a research university.