Kayla Atkinson

In addition to winning the Black Lives Matter Research Scholarship, Kayla Atkinson, ’23 psychology and sociology, has also been named the 2023 Caesar D. Sereseres Outstanding Service Award recipient. The honor is awarded annually in the School of Social Sciences to commend graduating seniors who have demonstrated outstanding service within key educational, leadership, and outreach programs in the School of Social Sciences and campus community. 

Her nominators noted her strong academic portfolio showcasing her investment to the community.  As an Anteater, she served as a student researcher, SSARC peer, class reader, lab leader, COACH peer for the Counseling Center, and a peer educator for SOAR’s Pathfinder Program. During the summer, she volunteered for Change Lanes Youth Support Services. At the city level, she assisted the Red Cross Club aiding with various service projects. Complementing this work, she served as treasurer for the Black Psychological Student Association and as the administrative assistant for the Social Sciences Deconstructing Diversity Initiative (DDI). 

Below, she reflects on her time at UCI, how she came to love the dual fields of psychology and sociology, and what’s next on her quest serving underrepresented communities of color.

What made you decide to pursue your current field of study, and specifically at UCI? What interests you most about your work?

Coming from a disadvantaged background as a first-generation student, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career where I can help bridge disparities within the black community and create representation. In high school, psychology was one of my favorite classes. I could clearly see how aspects of the subject were applicable to my life. I love learning about human behavior and the importance of mental health, as well as being exposed to culturally relevant issues and barriers. I am double majoring in psychology and sociology, as well as minoring in African American studies to be a psychologist in the future. I am very interested in mental health awareness, advocacy, inclusion, and diversity and I intend to reflect that in therapy as I serve underrepresented communities of color.

What are your plans after you receive your degree this spring?

I intend to pursue my master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling and have been accepted into a few schools this year. Eventually, I would like to obtain my Ph.D. in counseling psychology.

What would you consider your biggest accomplishment at UCI?

I am so honored to have remained on the Dean’s Honor List, to win the Outstanding Social Justice Activist Award at the Dynamic Womxn Awards, and to be highlighted in a student profile on the Social Sciences website. Despite this, I consider one of my biggest accomplishments at UCI as being involved in leadership roles that allow me to interact with and assist students who went through similar circumstances to me.

Tell us more about the activities you’ve been involved in and leadership roles you’ve held.

As the Black Psychological Student Association's treasurer, I get to help plan student events to foster a sense of community and fight mental health stigma amongst young Black people. It’s been incredibly rewarding to connect to my cultural identity and cultivate a safe space for others. As a Life Coach in the Counseling Center’s COACH program, I have weekly one-on-one sessions with my clients to create personalized action plans that enable them to achieve their goals. As a Pathfinder Peer Educator at the SOAR center, I hold quarterly consultations with a cohort of 15 mentees to connect them to campus resources and plan events tailored to their needs. This work enables me to help increase the retention rates of underrepresented students by enhancing their mental health, campus belonging, professional development, and overall success as a student. I am very passionate and dedicated to my involvements, and so thankful that they have allowed me to grow personally and professionally, as well as build connections with amazing people.

Tell us a bit about your research.

In my research, I conceptualized and conducted a qualitative research study on code-switching and the well-being of Black female college students. This study used the psychosociocultural framework with a strength-based approach. In this process, I identified relevant variables, conducted interviews, analyzed themes, as well as presented my funded study at the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Symposium

Who has played an important mentorship role in your life thus far and why? Specifically at UCI?

The biggest influences in my life have always been my parents who have always supported my dreams and instilled great values in me. Growing up, I’ve seen the sacrifices that they’ve made for me and for others and this has inspired me to give back too. Despite my parents being great role models, I am blessed to have an academic family at college. My mentor, Dr. Castellanos, associate dean of undergraduate studies and professor of teaching, has always uplifted me and encouraged me to pursue my aspirations in graduate school. She has taught me invaluable lessons that I will carry with me forever and has given me a sense of belonging in her research lab. Also, Dr. Ortega coordinator and advisor of the COACH program has taught me so many practical skills that I will take into my career field, as well as contributed to my personal growth and confidence. My parents, Dr. Castellanos and Dr. Ortega have helped me build resilience and perseverance in my journey.

What challenges or hurdles have you faced in getting to where you are today?

As a first-generation, my transition into higher education was very difficult. These hardships were exacerbated due to the lack of representation on campus among the black community. I had to navigate imposter syndrome, loneliness, self-doubt, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, I’ve learned valuable lessons from these experiences and have become a better version of myself in the process. Despite these challenges, my mentors, my parents and my strong motivation to achieve my future goals have allowed me to persist and thrive.

Where can you most often be found on campus?

You can often find me in the Student Outreach and Retention Center (SOAR) where I work. Be sure to visit for free printing, snacks, testing materials, or study space! When I’m not there, I am usually being studious in the Courtyard Study Lounge or basking in the sun at Aldrich Park.

And what’s your best memory thus far from your undergraduate experience at UCI?

When reflecting on my undergraduate experience, I’ll never forget the people that I met along the way who have helped me become a better person. Some of my favorite moments include having weekend retreats with my COACH cohort, representing the Black Psychological Student Association at general meetings and events, working with my fellow Pathfinders at SOAR, as well as connecting with other friends that I’ve met along the way. These memories will be cherished forever.

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