CSUMB graduate talks diversity, adversity and success

Undergraduate research week at California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) kicked off with a talk entitled “Too Diverse for Academia,” by Dr. Melissa Callaghan, an alumna of CSUMB’s psychology program.

When Melissa Callaghan arrived at CSUMB in 2008 it might have been easy for her to feel out of place and overwhelmed. Callaghan was a first-generation college graduate. Her parents immigrated from Fiji and neither graduated from college. The college experience was something no one else in her family could relate to.

However, Callaghan described a feeling of being at home at CSUMB. This feeling of being at home was due in part to the exceedingly diverse campus community. According to enrollment data for Spring 2021, 54% of undergraduates were first-generation students like Callaghan. Additionally, 69% of students identified as a race other than white.

Callaghan immersed herself in the CSUMB community and professors started to notice her success and work ethic. They encouraged her to apply for the McNair Scholarship through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Center (UROC) so she could expand her interest in psychology beyond the classroom. 

Callaghan wanted to explore research, but when she looked into filling out the program sign-up sheet, Fijian was not on the list of identifiable minorities. However, faculty within the department encouraged her to go for it anyways and made a case that Fijian was such an underrepresented ethnicity that it did not even make the list.

To her surprise, Callaghan was awarded a scholarship. What followed was a bumpy road with ups and downs that led to where she is now. She is working as a childhood education researcher, designer and consultant beginning a job at an ed-tech company and loves what she does. 

Along the way Callaghan talked about experiencing severe imposter syndrome, feeling she was “too diverse” and having self-doubt. 

However, there were also high points in her journey. Callaghan met her husband during her time at UROC and describes her time at CSUMB fondly.

Her parents were also extremely supportive of her, despite not having the same educational experience. Her parents helped her adjust to graduate school by attending orientation, and were the only parents there. Her mother also attends many of her talks, including “Too Diverse for Academia.” 

“I had to wipe the tears before I put the camera on,” said her mother after her daughter finished addressing the CSUMB community.

Callaghan had some advice for students in similar situations as she was. She described feeling like an imposter in graduate school, surrounded by white students in whose parents had experience in higher education and research, unlike hers. 

What helped Callaghan was to think about how “we are all diverse from one another – diversity is inclusive rather than what separates the few who seem ‘different.’” 

While her colleagues may not have had the same struggles as her, she learned they had their own, like one classmate who described the difficulty of living in a single-parent household.

Callaghan had a breakthrough where she said she became “brave enough to open up about [her]self” and “open (up) to being vulnerable.” It helped her to “not see vulnerable conversations as moments of weakness,” but as a way “to admit that [she] didn’t know how to do something.”

With the support of her family and the CSUMB community Callaghan discovered her love of research and this love has only continued to grow since then.

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