Cheryl Dickter

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Cheryl Dickter

I grew up in Middle Island, NY in a middle class community with a lot of racial and socioeconomic diversity. During middle school and junior high, I began to notice differences in the way that people from different groups were treated by teachers and staff at my school and even by parents. A teacher choosing me for a special award over my African-American friend who had outperformed me, a parent expressing concern about his daughter going to a friend’s house because it was in the “ghetto.” Once I began noticing these individual events, I began to see instances of prejudice everywhere I looked. Through my senior year of high school violence erupted between different groups with racist comments and interracial dating as the catalysts of the violence. Our school hired security guards and installed metal detectors as I struggled to understand where this hatred came from, receiving little information from teachers and parents. Throughout this time, I seemed to ask questions about implicit and explicit prejudice that no one could – or wanted to – answer.

I chose to pursue my undergraduate degree at Randolph-Macon College, a liberal arts school in Ashland, VA. I picked this school for two primary reasons – it had a strong honors program which came with a substantial scholarship and I would be able to start on the college soccer team as a freshman. Being a college athlete was a big challenge for me, particularly in my first semester when I was still adjusting to the transition from high school to college. Soccer was a commitment for at least two hours a day and involved travel to away games about once a week. I missed class and had less time to complete assignments, and I had to make up hours at my work study job on campus. My grades were not where I wanted them my first year, but I did better my second year. One thing that I really liked about R-MC was the close relationships I formed with my professors. I took opportunities to see my professors outside of class in office hours and at academic events on campus. I even created a small venture in which my friend and I would go to professors’ dinner parties to serve the meal and clean up so the host could focus on dinner! This was a great way to make some extra money and more importantly to form relationships with faculty from different departments (and learn some gossip!). Although I intended to become a teacher with my degree in elementary education and psychology, my plans changed once I realized I could study the very questions about prejudice I had asked since I was in middle school. I took a course called the Psychology of Stereotyping and Prejudice and realized that there was a whole field investigating these questions and finding out answers that were so important in this world. Although there were not many research experiences available at my school because professors were focused on teaching, one of the professors I had gotten to know sought me out and offered me a position doing data entry for a study on racial prejudice and discrimination. Her research looked at how and why people choose – or do not choose – to confront racist comments. This was something that I was fascinated about in my own life, and here was a chance to actually study it! After working on this project with my advisor, she encouraged me to pursue graduate school and I never looked back.

Like many students, I also dealt with a personal issue while discovering a love for research and while figuring out what I wanted to do with my career. My father developed cancer during my junior year and passed away shortly after. Particularly because my family was eight hours away in New York, trying to complete an honors project, working part-time and playing soccer while dealing with his illness and death was difficult for me. Sometimes having a loved one in the hospital or having to grieve a loss can make things like achieving a strong GPA seem unimportant. Having a support system got me through it – good friends offering shoulders to cry on and my research advisor encouraging me to think beyond graduation – led me to an honors degree and admission to a great Ph.D. program in social psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

During graduate school, I became more independent in my research and began to investigate the implicit aspects of prejudice that puzzled me in middle school. I learned neuroscience techniques and worked on examining how race is processed in the brain, and how this is related to prejudice, a topic that I continue to investigate today as an Associate Professor at the College of William and Mary in the Psychology department and the Neuroscience program. Helping students to find the research topic that has inspired questions in their lives and make discoveries in the lab to answer these questions is something that drives me every day. My research experiences were paramount to my success not only as an undergraduate student but also as a person struggling to understand the prejudice that her friends were facing. As a faculty member, working with students in my lab who have found their passion working on topics important to their own cultures and facilitating the transition to graduate school and an academic career is extremely personally fulfilling.

Photo of Profs. Franz, Dickter, and Charity Hudley by Christine Fulgham

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