Department of Psychological + Brain Sciences
TRIED AND TRUE
In March this year the Indiana University newsroom set out on a journey: to create a longform, multimedia project that would highlight IU Bloomington students and the journeys they embark upon when becoming a Hoosier. Among the 40,000 students on the campus, they chose 10 whose experiences they would feature. Two are psychology majors—Elena Navarro, a senior from Indiana, who joined clinical psychologist Cara Lewis’ lab, and Evelyn Bai, a double major in psychology and economics from China. We’ve included their stories here. To see the complete set of stories and a short video, go to https://triedandtrue.indiana.edu/.
Elena Navarro knows what it is like to be a first-generation college student.
Growing up in Schererville, Ind., Navarro had an early passion for learning and parents who nurtured their young daughter’s pursuit of knowledge.
“My dad always wanted me to become a doctor,” she said. “I always tried hard in school. I knew I wanted to go to college because that’s something my parents didn’t have a chance to do, and I wanted to be able to do that.”
But when Navarro was 10, her father passed away unexpectedly. The journey of processing her feelings about losing one of the most important people in her life set Navarro on a path that would eventually lead her to IU.
“I think from that moment on, I knew I wanted to go into psychology,” she said. “That was my path. I wanted to be able to help people who have gone through things similar to what I had gone through -- or things that were completely different -- and help them have a better future and be able to be comfortable in their own skin and not be burdened by negative emotions and thoughts.”
Although Navarro was always drawn to IU Bloomington, she considered attending a campus closer to home because she wasn’t sure she could afford to move away.
“I worked really hard in high school to make sure I had the grades to go,” she said. “I knew my mom wouldn’t be able to afford sending me to college, so I started working when I was 16. I knew I was going to have to work through college -- that was a given -- but I didn’t know if I would be able to handle working a lot and taking college classes at the same time.”
But Navarro’s mom wanted her daughter to experience everything college had to offer, so she encouraged her to find a way to make IU Bloomington happen.
When Navarro arrived on campus, she found a job at IU Campus Recreational Sports. While majoring in psychology and minoring in folklore and ethnomusicology, she spent 29 hours a week earning money to help keep her in school.
Then her junior year, Navarro took a Foundations of Clinical Science course with assistant professor Cara Lewis and immediately found a topic, and a professor, that would elevate her academic course.
Lewis was equally impressed with her student and asked Navarro to join her Training Research and Implementation in Psychology lab the following semester.
“IU made me realize that all the things I want to do -- travel, work in research, meet new people -- are possible. Because for a while, there was a part of me that didn’t think any of it would be possible. Coming here, I was given so many opportunities that have completely changed my life and made me realize if you take those chances, even if sometimes they are scary, you’ll find something really awesome on the other side. I wouldn’t be living the life I live today if I hadn’t come here and had those experiences.”
“Lena sat in the back of the class and made direct eye contact with me every class,” Lewis said. “She wouldn’t speak regularly, but frequently enough that when she did you could tell there was a thoughtfulness about her and everyone listened to what she said. I never do this, but I decided I needed to work with her not only as a charismatic human but also her scientific aptitude. I wouldn’t take no for an answer; I wanted her in my lab.”
Two months after Navarro joined the lab, Lewis encouraged her to apply for a National Institutes of Health Diversity Supplement, which eventually allowed Navarro to quit her job and focus solely on school.
“Since I was 16, working and going to school is all I’ve ever known,” she said. “It was a vicious cycle of working all the time for my job and trying to absorb what I’m reading in my classwork and trying to find time to eat and sleep. So the diversity supplement really helped eliminate a lot of that stress and allowed me to really focus on my academic work.”
Navarro now has time to work on her honors thesis and has co-founded ADAPT Consulting, which pairs students with a business or nonprofit to apply industrial/organizational psychological research to enhance the workplace.
“Even in the beginning of my junior year, I would never have thought I would have an opportunity to just do research and fully immerse myself in that world and love it,” she said. “When Cara asked me to join her lab, that was huge. I didn’t think I would be qualified to do something like this. She just saw something in me I didn’t see.”
That humility and her ability to work hard for what she wants are what make Navarro so special, Lewis said, and what she believes has led to her success.
“It’s probably a mix between being humble and not quite appreciating just how amazing she is,” Lewis said. “She hasn’t figured that out about herself yet.”
Navarro will continue to work in Lewis’ lab after graduating in May; her supplement is for two years. She then plans to attend grad school and become a clinician.
“IU made me realize that all the things I want to do -- travel, work in research, meet new people -- are possible,” she said. “Because for a while, there was a part of me that didn’t think any of it would be possible. Coming here, I was given so many opportunities that have completely changed my life and made me realize if you take those chances, even if sometimes they are scary, you’ll find something really awesome on the other side. I wouldn’t be living the life I live today if I hadn’t come here and had those experiences.”
BRIDGING THE GAP
Evelyn Bai also knows what a little hard work and a helping hand can do, especially when you’re in a foreign land.
Bai, like many of her peers growing up in a traditional Chinese family in Shenyang, was expected to do well in school and attend a good Chinese college.
But a desire to be different and explore the world led Bai on a path to the United States, and eventually IU, where she learned there is more to the college experience than academics and resumes. Here, she found herself serving as a connector between domestic and international students.
“IU is outside of my comfort zone, so it gave me the opportunity to jump out of my little, good-student world and to really have an opportunity to explore who I am beyond rankings and grades and jobs,” she said. “It connected me with so many interesting people, so many great mentors in life, and it made me realize what is important in life.”
Bai, a junior studying psychology and economics in the College of Arts and Sciences, first began thinking about traveling abroad in elementary school.
At 17, she entered her senior year at a high school in Glen Ellyn, Ill., as part of a cultural exchange program. Although a little nervous, Bai was comforted by her fluency in the English language -- she had been learning it since the second grade -- all the American movies and television shows she had consumed as a teenager and her deep desire to see the world.
“I was more curious than excited,” she said. “I thought it was the beginning of a new era. I was just really excited to explore my surroundings and what I could do with this new world, this new opportunity.”
She was also driven. Having never been a part of organized sports -- academics take precedence over athletics in China -- Bai joined the track team.
“I had a realization that the reason I am here is to make a change. It’s not how many things I’ve accumulated on my resume that proves myself, it’s not my GPA; it’s what I’ve done, it’s what impact I’ve made.”
“I made a goal for myself,” she said. “I would not be the last person on the team, and I would carry on no matter how hard the trainings were. And in the beginning, I couldn’t even make it to one mile, but toward the end of the season I could run six miles. So I was really proud of that. I’m still really proud of that.”
After high school, Bai spent a year at Rice University before transferring to IU. Her Type-A personality immediately set in -- she took 19 credit hours, maintained a 4.0 GPA, held down two jobs and joined as many clubs/organizations as she could to “pad my resume.”
“I was hanging in there, but things started to crack,” she said. “When I was in an organization’s meeting, I would be thinking of something else, I would be stressing out about homework due the next day. I would go just as a formality. I didn’t set off to make any changes on campus or to contribute anything to the organization; all I was thinking about was myself, how to prove myself, how to make my resume look pretty.”
After a lack of genuine involvement kept her from receiving a leadership position in a student organization, Bai decided to re-evaluate her goals.
“I had a realization that the reason I am here is to make a change,” she said. “It’s not how many things I’ve accumulated on my resume that proves myself, it’s not my GPA; it’s what I’ve done, it’s what impact I’ve made.”
Bai threw herself into the International Student Ambassador program, becoming one of its most involved students. Bridging the gap between international and domestic students became her calling.
In 2014, Bai traveled back to her high school in China as part of IU’s Hometown Hoosiers program. With heartfelt honesty, she answered all of the students’ questions about being a Hoosier and shared her own story of struggling to find balance and purpose in her life.
That year, the high school -- which previously had zero applications to IU -- had 20 students apply.
“I’m really proud of that,” Bai said. “Not only because of the number but because using my own experiences, I was able to change their way of thinking.”
Bai has also made a point of joining organizations and clubs that are typically made up of domestic students. She is pursuing a certificate in the Liberal Arts and Management Program, is part of the IU College Luminaries Program and is involved in 180 Degrees Consulting, a student-run consultancy that gives back to the local community through pro bono consulting.
Language barriers and cultural norms can make it trying for international and domestic students to connect, she said. For instance, Bai said she is really funny “in Chinese” but sometimes too intimidated to make a joke in English for fear she’ll be misunderstood. She also struggles to differentiate between American sarcasm and reality.
But it is important, she said, for international and domestic students to break those barriers and not be afraid of those sometimes awkward moments.
“It takes both international students stepping up and putting effort into learning the language and culture, and it takes domestic students to be understanding and willing to help,” she said.
As she looks ahead to graduation, Bai isn’t sure where she will end up. And for the first time, she isn’t stressing about being the perfect student and finding the perfect job.
“Everything we do all adds to us as a person,” she said. “That’s why I quit (the idea of) finding a job as my sole purpose to going to school here. I know with all the things I’ve done here and what they’ve taught me and what I’ve learned that I’ll be happy. I’ll be somewhere -- don’t know where -- but I’ll be happy and I’ll keep learning about myself no matter where I end up.”
Psychological + Brain Sciences