LSA junior Athena Bryer grew up in one of the few Latinx families in her tiny mid-Michigan town. Her family celebrated different traditions and cooked different foods, and those differences could sometimes make Athena feel isolated. When she set her sights on attending the University of Michigan, Athena was looking for the opposite -- a large, diverse student population that would provide exposure to new viewpoints and cultures, and challenge her to be a better version of herself every day.

“By my senior year, I had already been envisioning myself at Michigan for years but I was nervous that my small, rural high school might not be as competitive as others,” said Athena. “I made sure to reach out to the university, and the Michigan admissions adviser who visited my school, to ask for guidance every chance I got.”

From the moment she set foot on campus, Athena has used a similar strategy to plot a successful course toward graduation. She’s shaping her own LSA experience by embracing a mix of programs designed to ensure that all LSA students can fully experience all the college has to offer.

Qualifying for a free laptop loan through the LSA Laptop Program as a newly admitted student meant Athena could start her college journey without having to worry about how to afford this most essential tool. The program was launched by LSA as a four-year pilot in 2014 and quickly became one of the college’s most relied upon initiatives for increasing equity among its student population.

“I had never had my own laptop before,” said Athena. “It’s been so incredibly beneficial to me, and even more of a relief when I learned we’d be able to keep our laptops after graduation.”

There are almost 18,000 undergraduates in LSA alone, and finding your place on the University of Michigan campus can be overwhelming -- especially if you come from a town with a population of less than 10,000. Hoping to make campus feel a bit smaller, Athena was drawn to the tight-knit Women in Science and Engineering Residence Program (WISE RP), a living and learning community for just 150 students located in Mosher-Jordan Hall. In WISE RP, Athena found an inclusive community and friendships that have endured; many of the women she met in WISE remain among her closest friends. WISE RP members, like students in other Michigan Learning Communities and some scholarship cohorts, have access to study groups, social events, networking, alumni panels, and specialized advising, all of which can make the resources of a large university like U-M easier to manage. First-year students also benefit from close connections with second-year peer-mentors.

“For me, navigating the world of STEM as a minority, WISE filled an important role of offering guidance and support,” said Athena. “I had such an impactful experience during my first year of college that I decided to come back to WISE my second year as a mentor in hopes of providing the same experience to my mentees.”

As a top public research university, LSA encourages undergraduates in the liberal arts to consider the wonder of why, to use their curiosity to spur great discoveries through research. The Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) encourages students to get involved in research early in their college careers by creating partnerships for LSA undergraduates with U-M and community researchers. With an interest in STEM, Athena applied for UROP the summer after high school. She thought it’d be a great way to get research experience while receiving financial support through work-study.

“I enjoyed UROP because I was able to start getting valuable research experience in psychology my very first semester, along with guidance through the process by a structured class,” she said. “UROP’s concluding research symposium, where we all presented our research, was a great opportunity to practice preparing and presenting research.”

UROP also strengthened her interest in majoring in psychology, and her project on implicit bias toward LGBTQ members in the STEM field aligned with her academic interests. The experience later helped her land a research assistant position in the developmental psychology department’s Conceptual Development Lab, where she has recently begun training to take over the position of study coordinator. The lab studies children’s understanding of gender as early as infancy and how children categorize the gender of fictional characters who are presented through storybooks or short videos.

“Both of the research labs I’ve been a part of have allowed me to combine my passion for psychology and my passion for gender and health,” said Athena, who is double majoring in Psychology and Gender and Health, with a minor in Community Action and Social Change. She plans to apply to the U-M School of Social Work, and hopes to use her social work degree in either a health care or educational setting.

Always seeking to make meaningful connections and broaden her perspective, Athena studied abroad in Madrid, Spain, the summer after her first year thanks to an LSA study abroad scholarship. She also planned to travel to Tanzania in summer 2020 to work with young girls, teenagers, single mothers, widows, and people with disabilities in the Maasai community, with the assistance of a Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates (GIEU) scholarship. 

Her Tanzania study trip was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Athena is already considering internship opportunities for the upcoming spring and summer terms. She’s already made good use of the LSA Opportunity Hub, (which offers services designed to help students connect their liberal arts education to their goals and aspirations) to prepare for the next step on her journey: finding and funding the right internship. 

Athena continued, "And I plan to utilize the Hub again later this year by applying for the LSA internship scholarship once I’ve secured an internship for the summer. This will be necessary and extremely helpful to help me cover costs such as rent, groceries, or travel.”

Support for programs like these comes from some of the Dean's top priority funds, and makes it possible for all students, regardless of background or socioeconomic status to identify, participate in, and realize the benefits of a broad range of experiential learning opportunities.