Supporting Students of Color in Cognitive and Psychological Science

By BRiDGE Committee Member Sarah McCormick

Dr. Belem López , UT Austin

This November, the department of Psychological and Brain Sciences hosted Dr. Belem López, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mexican American and Latino/a Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, where she is also affiliated with the center for Mexican American Studies and the Department of Psychology. Dr. López directs the LLAMA (Latinos, Language, and Mexican American Studies) lab, and her research program focuses on bilingualism; particularly on how knowing and using multiple languages can shape cognition in terms of creativity, problem solving, decision-making, and language access. For her Bridge2Impacts talk, Dr. López led a discussion about how to better support students of color in cognitive and psychological science, as well as research more broadly.

She broke down her talk into a few main areas: how to support students in the classroom, in research, and in the lab. She gave several examples from her own experience on how to begin doing this, such as: including a respect for diversity statement in course syllabi; incorporating a history of psychological researchers in your course that includes scholars of all backgrounds to help break down the stigma that persists in these spaces; directly teaching the hidden curriculum; and making connections between research and the broader community. Over the course of her talk, she shared two points in particular that I want to highlight.

First, Dr. López opened her talk with a quote from Gloria Anzaldúa, a scholar whose work has informed Chicana cultural theory, queer theory, and feminist theory. From Anzaldúa1:

Not all of us have the same oppressions, but we empathize and identify with each other’s oppressions. We do not have the same ideology, nor do we derive similar solutions…but these different affinities are not opposed to each other. In El Mundo Zurdo I with my own affinities and my people with theirs can live together and transform the planet.

This powerful quote has stuck with me since Dr. Lopez’s talk. We are all different people with different identities, and this is our strength. Revolutionary change and progress are only possible when people from different backgrounds work together. This holds true in our academic settings, and while we may not be able to personally identify with every student in our classrooms and labs, we can empathize and use our own experiences to make our spaces welcoming and inclusive for all students.

Dr. López leads BRiDGE2Impacts discussion

Dr. López also stated in her talk that “my data is not more important than my students’ mental and physical health”. While simple, this quote moved me to my core. Too often in academic settings at every level, students feel burnt out by the pressure to constantly be working, collecting data, and writing, among other tasks. It was refreshing and really valuable to hear this perspective from a faculty member that students’ well-being should be prioritized over research activities. Dr. López further has a “life happens” policy in her lab that allows students flexibility in the classroom and lab. There are systemic issues that make life harder for first-gen students and students from under-represented groups that just pile on top of all of the other work that needs to be done. Respect for this fact and flexibility from mentors goes a long way towards supporting students and making our academic spaces more inclusive.

Dr. López led a very engaging discussion and provided several examples of how to support students in our classrooms and laboratories. While we still have a long way to go, I feel hopeful and inspired by Dr. López’s talk that we can achieve the progress we’re seeking by working together.

References: Anzaldúa, G. (1988). El Mundo Zurdo. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. pg. 209.

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