From Warrington to Wisconsin: The Importance of Mentors for Navigating the Academic Journey | SPSP

By Alison Jane Martingano

I grew up in Warrington, an ex-industrial town in the UK where most students left high school at 16. After high school, I attended a local college where I took my first psychology class with Barbra, or “Babs” as we affectionately called her. Babs was keenly aware of the challenges her students faced and consistently rose to meet them. It was under Babs’ careful tutelage that my passion for psychology ignited. I recall staying up late, reading the assigned textbook cover to cover as if it were a novel. I even conducted my first experiment on whether people perceived green cupcakes as less tasty. Although the results were insignificant, the impact on me was not.

I was fortunate to have a four-year university as an option—thanks to the UK’s generous student loan scheme—but getting a bachelor’s degree was by far the hardest part of my academic journey. I enrolled in a “red brick” university, England’s answer to the Ivy League, thinking it was the best, but I found myself surrounded by students and faculty who expected me to know the unwritten norms and expectations of academia. I didn’t. I worked for hours, but often focused on the wrong things. I had friends who I would sometimes tutor because I knew the material so well, but they always seemed to get better grades. What did they know that I didn’t?

I remained oblivious throughout my degree to many essential aspects of academic life, such as networking, joining research labs, and seeking proactive guidance. I vividly remember graduation day. Sitting next to one of the program’s top students, I was taken aback when he inquired about which lab I belonged to. I didn’t understand the question. What was a lab? While he embarked on a Ph.D. journey that autumn, I returned to Warrington to resume my job as a care assistant. Although I frequently participated in class and achieved high grades, no professor ever approached me with research opportunities or broached the topic of graduate school. I’ve since recognized that many professors wait for students to show initiative, an approach that inadvertently overlooks passionate students unfamiliar with academic norms.

Happily, the maze of academia became more navigable during graduate school, thanks to Juliana, a fellow student from my program. She was the daughter of two professors, a concept that I couldn’t quite absorb the first time she mentioned it. Professors, to me, were these mythical creatures that lived in ivory towers, but she grew up with two at the breakfast table. Wow! I clung onto her. Her mentorship introduced me to the value of joining research labs, the importance of maintaining a visible presence, and the nuanced art of staking one’s claim in academia. And my goodness did her advice bear fruit! After following her advice, and spending my spare hours hanging around the 7th floor research labs, it didn’t take long for opportunities to start flowing to me. Professors started noticing me. Random conversations would turn into “Oh, would you like to help with that, Alison?”. I started to be given data to analyze for myself. Finally, I was putting effort into the things that mattered to succeed, and the rewards started to appear. One professor remarked in a conversation that he was surprised he hadn’t heard of me, he mentioned that every year he asked the departmental secretary to show him the best psychology applicants. I wasn’t in the pile, but I was starting to learn how to make sure I was in future.

Despite the progress I was making, it wasn’t until I met Dr. Sara Konrath that academia was illuminated and I saw a path by which I could succeed. In the four years she mentored me, she would explain the unwritten rules in a way I understood: Whether it was understanding the nuances of academic publishing or the seemingly trivial aspects of dressing for conferences. Through her, I not only navigated the academic realm but began to understand my worth within it.

Understanding my worth has not been easy, and is something I still struggle with as an early-career scholar today. Part of the struggle is how to define worth, based on academia’s standards or my own?

I am now an Assistant Professor at The University of Wisconsin–Green Bay. I feel at home here. The city of Green Bay is not so different from Warrington, and the students here are mostly first-generation. But some people wonder why I didn’t try to pursue a career at a bigger-named, bigger-budget university. Is it because I have internalized ideas about what I’m worth? Would I have made the same choice if I had two professors as parents? But the truth is, I feel lucky to have this position. That persistent feeling of gratitude is perhaps one of the most subtle impacts of my background, and I wouldn’t want to change it.

Luckily for me, my colleagues, many of whom are first-generation scholars, provide camaraderie and insight. Not only do I feel supported and appreciated in my role as a teacher and scholar, but I now also have mentors who can help me unpack the complexities of academia for non-academics. Together we question why there is pressure to publish more, secure more funding, and collect more citations. Multi-generational students bear the burden of meeting many unwritten and exhausting expectations of productivity. Perhaps as more first-generation students enter academia, it will reduce the fierceness of some of these unhealthy academic norms. As we begin to explain the unwritten rules of academia, we have the opportunity to edit these rules as we go.

My journey from Warrington to Wisconsin was only possible because of mentors who believed in me. From Babs, who ignited my love for psychology, to Dr. Konrath who continues to refine it, their impact has been profound. As I stand before my students, I see glimpses of my younger self. As I continue to navigate academia, I aspire to guide my students and open doors, just as my mentors did for me. Success isn’t just about individual brilliance or tenacity; it’s about the collective support and belief of those around us.

Source: From Warrington to Wisconsin: The Importance of Mentors for Navigating the Academic Journey | SPSP

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