Making her mark
- November 15, 2021
- UCI psychology undergrad Michelle Thomas receives inaugural Black Lives Matter Research Scholarship to advance understanding of Black, marginalized communities
From scholarship to community engagement to her own lived experiences, advancing understanding of Black and other marginalized communities guides Michelle Thomas’s every action. As one of the inaugural recipients of the UCI School of Social Sciences Black Lives Matter Research Scholarship, she’s gotten a funding boost for her work on intergenerational trauma in the Black community – a topic she plans to pursue further through a Ph.D. in clinical psychology after she graduates in spring.
“Colorism and racist ideologies and laws have perpetuated trauma. I want to expose these systems with research. I want to help people heal in my career as a clinical psychologist,” she says.
The recent research recognition is one of several she’s earned during her time as an active Anteater on campus. The psychology major and African American studies minor is also the recipient of two Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program grants and a Summer Undergraduate Research Program grant.
She’s honed her skills through participation in the Summer Academic Enrichment Program last year where she received intensive training in research methods, statistics, and public speaking. She interned with the ASUCI Mental Health Commission and helped create the first virtual Reclaim Mental Health Conference. She participated in the Deconstructing Diversity Initiative where she attended seminars and traveled across the U.S. learning about race relations throughout the country. She mentored high school students through the Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Healing Ambassador (DIRHA) program and led weekly discussion groups about racial inequality, tension, and privilege. She’s a founding member and a co-president of the Black Psychology Student Association. In this role, she invited guest speakers to participate in virtual discussions with UCI students about the Black community and mental health.
"I consider among my biggest accomplishments at UCI making lifelong friends and leaving behind the Black Psychology Student Association where Black psych students can thrive on campus," Thomas says.
She hopes her investment in this organization will create a pathway for the students who come after her. Her mentor, social sciences associate dean Jeanett Castellanos, has no doubt the groundwork Thomas has laid will change lives.
“She is a proactive, innovative, and dedicated leader on the ground, building up. This is not just a student who is trying hard. Her work ethic and talent go hand in hand. She is cognizant of disparities in society and wants to help marginalized communities. And she is well-rounded in research training, practical experience, and leadership skills.”
Thomas is so focused and accomplished, it’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do. The fourth-year senior admits, though, that she felt a little lost her freshman and sophomore years.
“It was really difficult being in a room of 300 people and being one of only a few Black people or the only Black person in the room. The best thing that happened to me was living in the Academic Excellence Black Scholars house,” she says. “I lived with 30 other Black students and coming home to a house full of Black people was refreshing. I realized I was not alone in these experiences.”
She also credits much of her success to the incredible mentors who invested their time in her growth and success.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without the mentors I’ve had,” she says. “Jeanett Castellanos helped me to see what I want to do with my life and what I want to do for future generations.”
Another mentor, DeWayne Williams, psychological sciences assistant professor, offered the same. “He also helped me see the power of having a Black professor. I want to be that example and point of contact for future students who look like me,” she says.
Thomas is paying it forward as a life coach for the Creating Options and Conquering Hurdles program (C.O.A.C.H.), a motivational program that assists students in accomplishing their academic, social, and personal goals. As a life coach, Thomas is receiving extensive training by mental health professionals from the Counseling Center to help guide other students.
“It’s the thing I’m most excited for and enjoying in my entire UCI career,” she says.
But the opportunity almost didn’t happen. Thomas applied to the program her third year and wasn’t accepted. She applied again and got in. A lot of Thomas’s achievements can be attributed to perseverance and perspective.
“My first two years at UCI, I applied to research labs and didn’t get in. I applied to jobs and didn’t get them. I wondered if it was me. But now, looking back at all the opportunities I eventually did get, I realize that it all happens for a reason,” she says.
“My friend Dashia and I say to each other, ‘What was meant for you will come to you.’ In the moment, the rejection can be discouraging, and it can be hard to see the reason, but you will be where you need to be at the end,” she says.
As fall quarter is coming to a close, she’s getting ready for the next chapter in her academic journey with doctoral degree program applications. No matter where she ends up, says Castellanos, she will make her mark.
“With this degree, her goal is to maximize her potential for societal contribution,” says Castellanos. “Michelle is a super star and she will make great changes in this world. I am proud of her and her accomplishments. I can't wait to witness her future—it has so much promise.”
-Jill Kato for UCI Social Sciences
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