Kahn Fellow examines how race and ethnicity affect achievement

Tissyana Camacho standing at a podium giving a presentation with slideshow.

Camacho’s thesis presentation. Photo courtesy of Tissyana Camacho.

Tissyana Camacho jokes that she knew she was Uruguayan before she knew anything else about herself. She was born in Uruguay and moved to Los Angeles when she was 2 years old. While she doesn’t remember much of Uruguay, her parents provide constant reminders. The food her family eats at home, the artwork on the walls and the dialect they speak all keep Camacho and her siblings closely tied to the country her parents left behind. “I’ve always felt really good and proud about being from Uruguay,” says Camacho.

While attending a predominantly Mexican and Latino high school, Camacho became increasingly aware of differing social groups and how attitudes might influence achievement. “Whenever I heard something negative, it was never about my group – Uruguayans – but someone else’s group,” says Camacho. “And I thought to myself, this has to impact people. I wondered why the expectations for different social groups were, unfortunately, lower. Then I started to think about ethnicity and culture in terms of academic achievement. I thought that if people felt good about their ethnicity, they’d probably achieve more academically and do well in life. It was a very simple way of how I thought back then, without knowing any of the theory and research.”

This spring, Camacho was given the support she needed to find her answers through the prestigious Robert Kahn Fellowship for the Scientific Study of Social Issues. The fellowship provides dissertation support for one University of Michigan (U-M) doctoral candidate who demonstrates a commitment to using empirical research to confront a major social problem. It was established in honor of Robert Kahn, one of the founding members of the Institute for Social Research (ISR), who dedicated his life to using the best science to generate insights into social problems and point toward their solutions.

Camacho was chosen because her research efforts – examining how Latino college students’ racial and ethnic identity affects their academic success and psychological well-being – closely align with Kahn’s legacy. “I was so happy to receive the news,” says Camacho. “Research requires intrinsic motivation, and I do it because it’s important to me, but it’s nice to receive acknowledgement that the work is valued by others and that there’s real meaning in it for our society.”

Tissyana Camacho in cap and gown with her mother.

Camacho celebrating her graduation from California State University, Northridge with her mother. Photo courtesy of Tissyana Camacho.

Camacho’s life veered into academia when Gabriela Chavira, one of her favorite undergraduate professors at California State University, Northridge, asked her what her plans were after graduation. “I really enjoyed being a psychology major, and I knew I wasn’t done with school yet,” says Camacho. “One conversation changed my trajectory and life.” Chavira recruited Camacho for her research lab and continued to play a pivotal role in Camacho’s career, encouraging her to apply to doctoral programs and to a research fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health, which Camacho was awarded. And it was Chavira who encouraged Camacho to attend a diversity recruitment weekend at U-M.

Now a fifth-year student in U-M’s Developmental Psychology program, Camacho’s dissertation focuses on Latino college students and how different social experiences relate to ethnic identity. She’s interested in the college years especially, as that’s when many people begin to inform their identity in new ways. It’s often the first time people are exposed to different backgrounds or have the opportunity to take classes related to race, ethnicity and culture. “These experiences shape the way we begin to see what race and ethnicity means to us,” says Camacho.

Camacho is taking a look at the friends students have before and during college, the community they surround themselves with, and the organizations they belong to. She wants to know about feelings of belonging and how students relate to other people with their racial or ethnic background. Camacho hypothesizes that how a person experiences these things will inform feelings about their race and ethnicity, such as how proud and resolved they feel to be a part of their racial/ethnic group, which in turn will relate to their academic achievement.

“Tissyana’s dissertation uses novel, cutting-edge methods to answer important questions about the role of inclusion and exclusion in Latino college students’ identity development and, in turn, their academic success and psychological well-being,” says her dissertation advisor Deborah Rivas-Drake, an associate professor of psychology and education. “Her research will yield rigorous evidence to support development of programming and intervention on campuses. Tissyana is asking big questions, yet is eager to challenge herself to answer them in concrete ways.”

To conduct her research, Camacho is using the Latino subsample data from the National Science Foundation-funded College Academic Social Identities Study. The study examines and documents ethnic/racial minority students’ interpersonal, intrapersonal and contextual experiences at five four-year colleges in the Midwest. It’s a longitudinal study with three cohorts who are surveyed at the beginning of their freshman year, the end of freshman year and every spring after that until graduation. “Tissyana has designed a study that is methodically and conceptually rigorous,” says her secondary advisor, Stephanie Rowley, a professor of psychology and education and chair of the Combined Program in Psychology and Education. “It has the potential to make an important contribution to the relatively sparse literature on ethnic identity development in Latino college students.”

Camacho hopes her work will be applied. She spent a summer as a Public Policy Fellow for the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues and the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C., a position that played a large role in Camacho’s desire for her research to have real-world purpose. “I’m interested in providing schools with information on how to promote ethnic identity development for students of color and encouraging people to talk about these things more,” she says. She would like to work alongside an educational organization or institution and help them use the data to figure out best practices. “But that’s far down the road,” she says. “I’m still getting to know the research that’s out there, thinking about my ideas and finishing my project. I’m really excited for the Kahn Fellowship to provide me with the space and time to be able to pursue questions I’ve been wanting to answer for so long.”

Tissyana Camacho standing next to a vintage car.

Camacho sporting maize and blue while in Uruguay. Photo courtesy of Tissyana Camacho.

Camacho will look to her mentor, Chavira, and her dissertation advisors, Rivas-Drake and Rowley, as she navigates the path ahead. “Their mere existence in a space that I hope to occupy in the future is meaningful in and of itself,” says Camacho. “Here are psychologists who are women of color, who are doing extraordinary work and representing important positions at their universities. It’s meaningful to me without any words being spoken. Knowing them personally allows me to receive constant reminders that my voice matters and that my work matters. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”

Camacho’s says her own ethnic identity is fairly cemented at this point in her life, but that the complexity with which she understands herself continues to grow. Here in Ann Arbor, she’s taken on new identities as a researcher, an academic and a Kahn Fellow. And, not the least, a wolverine.

Kahn Fellow examines how race and ethnicity affect achievement