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Graduate student digs into the social psychology behind minority experience

Tessa Benson-Greenwald is studying minority experiences in majority group spaces.
Tessa Benson-Greenwald is studying minority experiences in majority group spaces.

The lack of diversity in academia, especially in STEM disciplines, is no secret. In 2015, the National Center for Education Statistics issued a report on racial backgrounds of full-time professors across the United States: 83 percent were Caucasian, nine percent were Asian/Pacific Islander, four percent were African American, three percent were Hispanic and one percent were Native American/Alaska Native individuals.

Tessa Benson-Greenwald, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology, studies minority experiences in majority group spaces. Benson-Greenwald works with social psychology professor Amanda Diekman, whose work is geared toward improving the diversity within STEM fields. Using a motivational perspective, she is primarily interested in understanding why women and people of color are not entering these fields at the same level of their white, male counterparts.

Benson-Greenwald's interest in psychology stems from wanting to help people -- to improve others' mental health and ability to lead fulfilling lives. Her interest in social psychology was sparked in an introductory social psychology course during the second semester of her freshman year at Pennsylvania State University.

"Social psychology looks at the impact of groups on individuals," said Benson-Greenwald. "We look at the effect of others on the way the individual processes information, makes decisions, interactions with other groups and the careers they choose."

While at Penn State, Benson-Greenwald began her research career studying gender and power interactions in the workplace. In particular, she looked at threats to masculinity and sexualization of subordinates as a response. Upon transferring to Kutztown University, Benson-Greenwald's interests expanded while studying individuals making stereotype-consistent judgements, after monitoring behavior without knowing someone's group membership. Group membership includes, but is not limited to, nationality, gender, age and ethnicity.

Like most researchers, Benson-Greenwald enjoys having the opportunity to do what she loves and make a career out of something she values. Her research is also beginning to influence her worldview.

"My research has shaped how I interpret and respond to others, and in turn has made me try to be very conscious of my interactions with other people," said Benson-Greenwald. "It allows me to be more optimistic in a world that sometimes feels very dark. I feel like science is our hope -- it's a way to solve the problem."

Benson-Greenwald believes her work will be instrumental in improving minority individuals' experiences in majority spaces.

"This work will help people who are majority members to think critically about how they interact with others, and what their roles are in shaping cultures within contexts and generally as people with privilege - in terms of trying to make the experiences for everyone in the group more positive," said Benson-Greenwald.

In addition to changing her worldview, Benson-Greenwald's roles at Miami as a researcher and teacher have molded her career aspirations.

"Ultimately, I want to end up at a university that is very similar to Miami, in that it balances and values teaching and research," said Benson-Greenwald. "I love research a lot, but one of my favorite aspects of being a grad student at Miami is that I get to have hands-on experience working with undergraduates. They have different perspectives that change how I look at my research and the questions that I'm asking. It's fun to be in a position to try and inspire the next generation who will be going down this path."