Marcia Chavez

High school graduates are often expected to follow a certain path: College. But what happens to those who are unable to earn their high school degrees?

Marcia Chavez defies expectations as a former high school dropout who is now working towards her PhD in psychology at UT and was recently one of five UT PhD students who were named Tennessee Doctoral Fellows.

Becoming a Tennessee Doctoral Fellow is one of the most prestigious achievements that a graduate student at UT can accomplish. The Tennessee Fellowship for Graduate Excellence website describes the program in greater detail:

“A Tennessee Fellow will receive $10,000 a year for four years, as well as a tuition waiver and a graduate assistantship. These Tennessee Fellows will join an elite group of the nation’s top graduate students who have chosen the University of Tennessee for their graduate education.”

“I don't often talk about this because I don't want to appear different from my peers, but my biggest challenge was earning my GED. I started studying for the exam when I was 22 because I soon recognized how a lack of a high school diploma affected me,” Chavez said. “I always loved learning, but I didn't do well in a formal education setting as a teenager. There is nothing inherently special about me. I truly believe we all have the ability to achieve our dreams.”

Cultural and social differences were also a challenge for Chavez.

“While attending college, I felt that I was treated differently in some situations, particularly in science classes. There weren't a lot of women or people of color. I remember having imposter syndrome and felt like I didn't belong in STEM. I even considered quitting or declaring a different major where there were more students like me,” Chavez said. “Coming to UT was a big step for me not because I was earning my PhD, but because the culture here is vastly different from what I was used to in southern California. I'm impressed with the importance and emphasis the university places on diversity in all areas of higher education.”

Despite challenging circumstances, Chavez is not one to back down. She even hopes to one day work at a national laboratory such as Oak Ridge, the National Institute for Mental Health or the Center for Disease Control.

At UT, Chavez conducts her research at the Neurobiology of Mental Illness Lab.

“Our lab studies how environmental events shape the developing nervous system and adult behavior. Using a behavioral neuroscience approach, we focus on understanding how testosterone, estrogen and pubertal timing affect anxiety, depression, cognition and reproductive behaviors. We are also working on a new line of research investigating the impact of pubertal hormone exposure on neuroplasticity in the brain,” she said.

Currently, Chavez studies the effects of hormone exposure during adolescence and its correlation with mental health under Dr. Kalynn Schulz.

“Specifically, girls who undergo early pubertal onset and boys who experience late onset are a greater risk for mental illness relative to their typically developing peers,” Chavez explained.

When asked about her experience with Dr. Schulz, Chavez had nothing but praise.

“My experience in our lab has been great. I'm fortunate to work with a great mentor like Dr. Schulz. I think Dr. Schulz goes above and beyond what you might expect of a PhD mentor. Every day she pushes me to be my best, but also recognizes that working away in the lab isn't everything. She encourages not only me but our other students in our lab to take care of ourselves when we need a break.”

Chavez is passionate about student mentoring and shares her advice for those who are beginning their journey in higher education.

“BE PATIENT. Stop worrying about finishing the race and focus on running it instead. When I first went back to school at 23, I was in such a hurry to finish because I was starting college at an age when a lot of people I knew were finishing their bachelor's degree. I felt like I had been in school for such a long time after I finished my bachelor's. However, if I hadn't learned to be patient with my education along the way, I wouldn't be here at UT today earning my PhD,” Chavez said.

Marcia Chavez’s passion for increasing diversity in the science field shines through daily as she continues to work toward her goal of completing her PhD. Chavez’s story is an inspiration to all of us that it is possible to push past circumstances.

This article is part of a five-part story regarding UT’s Tennessee Doctoral Fellows.

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