Psychology student wins Smith Marshall Scholarship, will study racial and ethnic health disparities

By

Robert Ewing

Xochitl Arlene Smola, a first-generation college student in Arizona State University’s Department of Psychology, was recently awarded the Smith Marshall Scholarship.

The Smith Marshall Scholarship is an endowed scholarship awarded each year to psychology students who have graduated from a high school in the state of Arizona and have excelled in their academic pursuits.

Smola’s early desire to understand the brain and behavior led her to explore the field of psychology, resulting in a passion for learning and research.

“The first time I heard the term psychology, it was as if I had cracked open a large book with light beaming out of it,” Smola said.

Because she is particularly interested in adolescent development, Smola has spent her time at ASU working with leading researchers including Nancy Gonzales, Foundation Professor of psychology and dean of natural sciences, and Leah Doane, associate professor of psychology and developmental area head. With Gonzales and Doane, Smola is working on ways to mitigate the racial and ethnic disparities that affect many Arizonan students. She credits Gonzales and Doane as two of the most influential mentors she has had at ASU.

As a first semester freshman, Smola became a research assistant at Bridges within the Culture and Prevention Research Lab, led by Gonzales. Bridges is a family-oriented intervention for middle school students and their families. The program works to reduce alcohol, behavioral and emotional problems in the long term by increasing engagement and support among families and within the school community. Smola has since presented research at a national conference and is currently working on her honors thesis with the lab.

Smola is also a research assistant at Transiciones within the Adolescent Stress and Emotion Lab, which is led by Doane. The Transiciones Project studies how the transition to college at ASU affects the physical and mental health of Latino high school students and their families. The lab uses physiological measures, such as hormone levels and sleep quality, to understand the impact of day-to-day experiences on physical and mental health.

Related: Mike Sladek Wins APA Dissertation Award on Transiciones Project

Smola’s work as part of the Bridges and Transiciones programs led to her “aha” moment: She realized she was captivated by the questions, experimental design and analytical aspects of psychology. She wanted to pursue a PhD.

“Working on these projects gave me the confidence to be where I am,” she said. “They have dynamically changed my career interests.”  

She hopes to one day become a researcher in the field of developmental psychology and to educate others on the challenges that ethnic students face in and out of the classroom.

“A lot of other ethnically diverse or first-generation students don’t have the opportunities I have had at ASU, so I think a lot of initiatives should go to answering these kinds of disparities, as well as health disparities,” Smola said. “Being awarded the Smith Marshall Scholarship is another great opportunity that will help me continue my academic studies.”

Smola said that as a first-generation college student and Hispanic woman, the Smith Marshall Scholarship has given her the confidence to ask questions and pursue a prominent career in research and developmental psychology. She encourages others to ask questions when they need it most.

“A big revelation I had while at ASU is that professors, faculty and peers want to help you succeed — the first step is to just be inquisitive and ask,” Smola said.

Smola has taken her love of learning one step further to the psychology department’s new Student Success Center, where she and others coach and tutor underclassmen.

“The really interesting and unique thing about the success center is that it’s specifically geared toward psychology. It is different from other tutoring centers because we’ve taken these courses, we’ve been in their shoes,” Smola said.

The goal of the center is to prepare undergraduate psychology students for success in academics and well beyond.

“As part of the inaugural SSC coaching team, Arlene has been instrumental in setting up the center and its initial success. Her enthusiasm is infectious to both the students and the other coaches,” said Whitney Hansen, senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology and supervisor of the Student Success Center. “She has used her advanced knowledge of statistics to help coaches review and students master the material. She is smart, passionate and supportive, which is why students who come to see her in the SCC keep coming back to receive coaching!”