Just stepping onto the UCI campus was nerve-wracking for Michelle Thomas; it was the first-generation college student’s first time moving away from her Ontario home. Living in the Academic Excellence Black Scholars House in the Arroyo Vista complex her freshman year helped Thomas adjust to the lack of her usual support system and eased her assimilation into the college experience. Graduating this spring with a B.A. in psychology and a minor in African American studies, she plans to earn a Ph.D. in psychology and wants to help minority populations. In fact, Thomas decided to get involved in psychology because of the stigmatization of mental health in the Black community. She also sees a lack of Black women in her field and hopes to address that – perhaps by becoming a professor and serving as a role model for Black, female university students. Additionally, she intends to open a private practice to employ and serve people of color.
What is your favorite memory at UCI?
Living in the Black Scholars House freshman year. I think just building that sense of community with other Black students and having friends that I’m going to take into my adult life is super special and important.
What are your plans after graduation?
Applying to grad school. But outside of that, I’m looking for a job; I want to maybe work in a lab or in a coaching role. Right now, I’m a life coach for undergrads, and I see myself continuing that as a little baby step to therapy. I also see myself traveling and spending time with friends.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
In five years, I think I’ll be in a Ph.D. program. No, I will be in a Ph.D. program. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a counseling program, but that’s to be determined. I just see myself being more confident in my roles and my goals, more confident in who I want to be. I also see myself just being happy. I think that’s an important part of life: happiness.
“Grit, persistence and resilience are at the center of Michelle’s narrative. It has been an honor to serve as her mentor, and I can’t wait to see Michelle reach her academic and professional dreams. She has so much to offer the field of psychology and the world. She’ll have a significant impact and serve in unique ways that underserved communities have long awaited. Michelle will be the alumna we reflect on 20 years from now and say, ‘What a fantastic success story!’ She represents the dream that many first-generation families aspire to achieve.”
– Jeanett Castellanos, professor of teaching in the School of Social Sciences
Who was your biggest influence at UCI?
From the faculty standpoint, I have three mentors who have been very important to me and helped shape my growth in different ways. Jeanett Castellanos [professor of teaching in the School of Social Sciences] has helped me in the research realm and the grad school realm. When I came to her, I didn’t know anything, and she was really that guiding light to help me realize what I wanted to do in my future – and then help me get there. Then there’s DeWayne Williams [assistant professor of psychological science]. I was specifically seeking a Black person to mentor me and help me navigate UCI. He definitely helped me in that respect. The third person, Dr. Jessica Ortega, directs the COACH program. She taught me a lot about self-compassion, taking care of myself and growing as a person – in a personal as well as practical sense. My three mentors, I would say, all kind of encompass who I am today and how I got here. My friends, who have been there for me the whole time, have also been important!
What do you know now that you wish you had known before coming to UCI?
What’s meant for me will come to me. I think that, for a while, I tried really hard to fit in, do what other people were doing, but that wasn’t really working out for me. I had to realize that my path is my own and other people’s paths are their own. Even if two people get the exact same opportunity, they’re going to do it differently because they’re unique individuals. I realized that my uniqueness is great; I shouldn’t try to be like other people. And if I didn’t get an opportunity, it wasn’t meant for me, but other things will come to me in the future, and I’ll be where I’m supposed to be. You just have to trust the process.