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Research Experience... as a Pre-First Year

November 17, 2019

Tosh Phoenix ’23

This past summer, I had the opportunity to conduct research in the psychology department with Professor Travis Wilson… as a pre-first year. 

A bit after National College Decision Day, I received an email (and postal mail) from the college inviting me to apply for the Science and Technology Research Opportunities for a New Generation (STRONG) program. STRONG is a five-week, paid, STEM-oriented, research opportunity for pre-first years who are underrepresented in STEM. The application consisted of filling out demographic information and a few short-essay responses. Before submitting the application, I was required to rank the STEM-focused labs in order of interest/preference; I clearly remember ranking the neuroscience and psychology lab. Sometime after, I received a phone call in which I was congratulated for being accepted into the program.

I was so overjoyed. Because while I was completing the application, I could not help but think about other pre-first years who were applying and how they may be a bit more competent for the position(s) than I was. As a result of my self-sabotaging thoughts, I did not expect to be accepted into the program. But I did not have anything to lose, but rather so much to gain, so why not apply? 

When I arrived on campus on June 22, 2019, I recall being extremely nervous. Some of my concerns:

What if I do not connect with any of the other STRONG Scholars?

What if I hate research?

What if I am incapable of efficiently performing the research tasks and it is a bother to my research mentor?

Heck, what if there is a disconnect between my research mentor and me?

There were a number of questions circling my mind at that moment. I did not know what to expect and exactly how I should feel. Yes, I was excited and grateful to be on campus and have the opportunity to take part in research so early in my undergraduate career, but I was also experiencing quite a bit of anxiety. 

After unpacking and settling into Russian House, my mom, sister, and I planned to head to downtown Oberlin. However, as we were headed out, we passed two other STRONG scholars. My mom immediately goes, “You should go talk to them and invite them downtown.” I was extremely opposed to the idea. My mom practically dragged me back into Russian House to do it. 

Because of this encounter, I met my now best friend, Harriet. So thanks, Mom. I guess mothers really do know best (*says both reluctantly and mockingly*). 

My first concern, regarding building relationships with some of the other scholars, completely vanished after the first week of the program, which was orientation week. The following four weeks would consist of full-time research, and my other concerns were not directly addressed yet. 

My first week of research in the psychology department with Professor Travis Wilson, was, to my surprise, easy-going. Professor Wilson is very knowledgeable, kind, and welcoming. But by week two and three, I began to experience anxiety. I spent my mornings reading and analyzing a number of cases. But I had not identified a specific research inquiry that I would address; at that point, I was not even sure what topic I was leaning towards. As a result, I was extremely anxious and did not know how to discuss it with Professor Wilson.

But then I told him: I am overwhelmed by everything.

Professor Wilson expressed to me how he intended to “throw me in the deep end” (understatement of the year). And now that I am looking back, I greatly appreciate being thrown into the “deep end." In a way, I was forced to address my anxiety and develop coping mechanisms that would be especially important to utilize as I transitioned into college. Also, as a young adult, I am frequently going to have to make decisions about a number of things. And being thrown into the “deep end” for the first few weeks of STRONG allowed me to do this. 

It is not rare for Oberlin students to discuss their admiration and appreciation for the professors here at the college. A vast majority of Oberlin’s professors can be characterized as passionate, caring, and helpful, just to name a few. Also, Oberlin’s professors challenge their students while simultaneously providing resources for students to succeed. I had this experience with Professor Wilson. 

In terms of my specific research project, I, in a nutshell, examined how teacher-student and peer-to-peer relationships affect the academic performance of predominantly low-income, Black elementary students. And I utilized Professor Wilson’s previously collected data to identify the findings of the study. I genuinely enjoyed working on this project. Prior to beginning, my general goal was to explore the factors that contribute to the ethnic minority achievement gap. Not only did I gain more insight regarding this topic, but I also absorbed knowledge that was not a direct result of my research findings. 

Overall, I am extremely content with my research experience this past summer and am proud to have been apart of the STRONG 2019 cohort. Research as a pre-first year is extremely rare, but because of the amazing opportunities that Oberlin College offers, I was able to do it. 

A few days before the STRONG program ended, I reflected a bit. Here is a snippet of what I said:

3 more days left.

And then it is over. And there is no way of going back. 

What an experience. I think I am going to cry when it is over. Or at least cry in the safety of my room (LOL). 

Like one of the girls from my cohort said the other day, it is bittersweet.

I have grown as a person. I have experienced some highs and lows. I laughed and cried.

 I can genuinely say I am prepared for college (as prepared as any first-year can be, anyway). 

Overall, I am just more.

I do not think I need to say much more. That pretty much sums up everything. 

In the near future, as in the spring semester (possibly), I plan to continue my research in the psychology department and potentially research within a science-based lab. And because of the experience I had this summer as a STRONG Scholar, I have both the opportunity and courage to do so.

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