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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Carissa Schmidt

We often view society’s youth as a problem to be solved—how can we keep them out of trouble? What do we do when they eventually rebel? Rackham graduate student, Carissa Schmidt, believes that by showing today’s young people that they’re valued as individuals with unique thoughts, feelings, and opinions, rather than as problems, we can encourage positive development and provide more than adequate opportunities for growth.

Carissa is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the School of Public Health with a specialization in quantitative research methodology. In the final stages of her dissertation, she is dedicated to studying positive youth development and adolescent resilience. The social aspects of being a kid can be tough, so Carissa has spent her doctoral education trying to discover how youth overcome adversity and go on to experience positive development. Further, she is striving to learn the impact of societal and interpersonal mattering on their ability to thrive. Societal mattering explores whether a person feels valued and cared for by society. Interpersonal mattering refers to whether a person feels valued by those closest to them. Carissa is focused on developing and testing the psychometrics of a societal mattering scale for youth and examining how both types of mattering influence health-related outcomes, such as violence, delinquency, and academic achievement. Specifically, her research has been collected among rural adolescents, as most research of its kind has been conducted in urban settings.

When Carissa was applying to graduate school, she was immediately drawn to the University of Michigan. She found the available resources to be incomparable across the programs she had looked at. Throughout her time at Michigan, she has taken advantage of the University’s library services, received support and training from CSCAR (Consulting for Statistics, Computing, and Analytics Research), and utilized resources from the Center for the Education of Women. More so, there were two major factors that made the decision easy, the first of which was an incredible funding package.

During her master’s program, Carissa taught as a GSI (graduate student instructor) and went on to receive funding as a Rackham Merit Fellow during her Ph.D. studies. “It was great to know that I had five years of stable funding that allowed me flexibility in my program.” The RMF funds were part of her acceptance package, so learning there was still additional funding to be found as a student was huge. Carissa applied for and received donor funding from the Jean Forrest Fund, allowing her to pay down student loan interest while pursuing her doctoral degree. She also received the Critical Difference Award from the Center for the Education of Women, which helped when her car broke down, just before travelling for data collection. The Janz Memorial Fund also allowed Carissa to take a break from teaching to focus exclusively on her coursework and her research.

Additional funding in the form of the Rackham Dissertation Fellowship allowed her to advance her research by collecting her own data, rather than relying on the data from previous studies to help structure her methodology and draw conclusions. She was able to use those funds to travel to the areas in which she would conduct the studies and to incentivize school districts to allow their students to participate in her research. “Many students have to change what they want to study, simply based on the data that’s available to them if they can’t collect their own. This funding and the opportunity that went with it really allowed me to grow as a scholar.”

The second most motivating factor that brought Carissa to Michigan was the opportunity for mentorship from Dr. Marc Zimmerman, a U-M faculty member whose work she had admired and followed closely during her undergraduate career at Central Michigan University. His research on adolescent resilience was a perfect fit for what she wanted to study. In her personal statements for both her master’s and doctoral program applications, she wrote about how strongly she wanted to work with him and how valuable the experience to learn from him would be.

Dr. Zimmerman took Carissa under his wing, and during the second year of her Ph.D. program when she was all but certain she was going to fail her preliminary exams, he gave her a motivational talk she wouldn’t soon forget. Carissa felt something not unfamiliar to many graduate students when they are faced with the weight of their work; like she wasn’t cut out for a Ph.D., that she would be better off quitting. After an emotional meeting with Dr. Zimmerman, he told her to put on her coat, because they were going to take a walk. Carissa recalls the experience: “He took me to a nearby cemetery and told me, ‘We’re all going to end up here, just like these people. Can you live with doing that without getting your Ph.D.?’ That’s what kept me here. I knew I had him in my corner and I was going to make it through.”

In reference to her experience, Carissa says, “In one word, it has been fulfilling. Of course I’ve felt stress, but I’ve also been proud of myself more times in the last three years than ever in my life. I’ve discovered my passion, my viewpoints have changed and I see the world differently. I owe that to my experience as a graduate student and of course, to the incredible mentorship I’ve received along the way.”

Upon completion of her Ph.D. in 2018, Carissa aims to stay in academia and work as a professor. “My dream job is to teach. After spending ten semesters as a GSI, I am 100% sure that the classroom is where I belong.” She will continue her research on positive youth development in hopes of establishing her own curriculum and advocating for classes on the subject. She also hopes to follow in her advisor’s footsteps and expand upon her dissertation data to take a more longitudinal approach. Dr. Zimmerman began a longitudinal study in 1992, and in 2013, he implemented a program based on his findings. Looking to the long term, Carissa wants to use basic research centered around mattering to construct and implement a positive youth development program to better serve marginalized groups.