“In terms of the community at U-M, I’m constantly inspired by everything we have going on here. There is so much interesting work being done all over campus, much of it interdisciplinary. That is unique to Michigan. It’s crazy how much innovation is happening at the University. It’s inspiring to know you’re a part of this legacy that is the University of Michigan.”
Tissyana is a fourth year doctoral candidate in developmental psychology. She says, “I’m studying how ethnic identity develops within the college setting. I'm interested in examining the different ways college is a mechanism for coming to conceptualize and understand what race and ethnicity means to college students.” Her dissertation research will result from data collected at two public universities, one of them U-M and the other a predominantly Hispanic college in California.
Her research has been inspired by U-M faculty and summer experiences while a grad student. She describes, “The summer after my first year, I was doing a fellowship in public policy and they wanted me to read up on diversity in higher education. I read U-M faculty member Pat Gurin’s work on the subject and it inspired me to think more deeply about why diversity is so important in higher education. What people think about their ethnicity and how they feel about their ethnicity is essential to psychological health – and specifically so in college.
There is existing research on why ethnic identity is important for psychological health, as well as the growth and exploration of one’s identity throughout the college years. The field has begun to discuss what is special about college in creating these changes, but the research doesn’t quite cover the mechanisms for that change very well. There are formal mechanisms like required classes and orientation programs and informal mechanisms like the social interaction in a dorm or classroom. In my pilot data with Latino students at U-M, I realized the trend I saw was that the change in ethnic identity was based on the informal aspects of their environment. The class conversations between students with different race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation, these conversations were really important in understanding others and understanding one’s self. These mechanisms led me back to Pat’s work on why diversity in higher education is important. ”
Tissyana’s pilot study took place when there were student protests regarding the University divesting from investments in Palestine and confronting diversity issues in the #BBUM (Being Black at U-M) social media movement and protests. She explains, “It is these types of informal mechanisms like being able to protest on campus and have an opportunity to have those conversations openly and freely that helps with their comfort level in terms of developing their sense of ethnicity on campus.”
She says, “My goal is to give the literature a new perspective on how ethnic identity develops after adolescence. I hope to provide research saying the college years are a crucial period for human development, specifically for ethnic identity. The policy implications that this research could have are equally important. We know it is positive for students to feel good about their ethnic identity and this research may shape how universities can help.” Tissyana is specifically studying the Latino population because they are least well represented in higher education, hoping her findings will help support this growing part of the population.
Her path to a Ph.D. is not the traditional route but she wants to share her story to help inspire others to pursue higher education. Tissyana was raised in Los Angeles and attended community college there for two years before transferring to Cal State Northridge. There, she was on a scholarship from the National Institute of Mental Health. She says, “This is a route that not a lot of people have taken for their doctorate, but it’s important for people to know that there are affordable options – especially first generation college students who are trying to navigate higher education.”
“I was fortunate enough to be accepted to multiple programs, but when I came to visit, Michigan clearly stood out. The students were happier, the faculty more engaging, and I think that partially has to do with funding. Students don’t have to stress about funding. It was also clear that Michigan’s commitment to diversity was coming to life. I could see that in the students and faculty and I felt really comfortable. I knew that this was a place I could make home for five years.”
On campus, Tissyana is a busy grad student: “I spend a lot of time here providing service to the psychology department. I am invested in the prosperity of the department because they’ve been so invested in me. I have been a part of the diversity, social and admissions committees and I am the former chair of the Latino Student Psychological Association. It’s important to have your voice heard on campus – and I do that through the psychology department.” She also participates in Active U classes to make sure she gets out of the office. “I try to be active as much as I can. I’m on the co-ed soccer team in the psych department called the Dopamine Machine. We play once a week,” she says. Soccer doesn’t come naturally to this college volleyball player and native Uruguayan, but she says that it helps that she’s watched tons of soccer over the years.
“To be successful in graduate school, it is vital to have people who believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself. My advisors have been great with that. Grad students here were at the top of their class as undergrads. This experience could be really competitive, but it’s not. I’m thankful here we don’t have to compete for funding – we don’t have to fight to survive. Rackham has always been really supportive when I have questions. When I applied for Rackham emergency funding, I heard back in two hours. They took it seriously,” she says.
While she’s still a couple years away from her doctorate, she’s considering where she’ll end up when finished. She expands, “Ph.D.s need to be in academia but also outside of academia. We have a set of qualitative and quantitative skills that others don’t necessarily have in other settings. I feel like I’ve spent my time at Michigan preparing myself for the academic and nonacademic routes. I hear people who go into consulting talk about the lack of expertise when it comes to analytical skills, and that reaffirms for me that Ph.D.s would be good in so many areas outside the academy.”