Research, Mentorship and Persistence Provides a Pathway to a Brighter Future
September 20, 2023

The California Pre-Doctoral Program has supported the doctoral aspirations of California State University (CSU) students for more than three decades. This year, the advisory committee from the CSU and the University of California reviewed 156 student applications and picked 76 recipients to receive the program’s Sally Casanova Scholarship including Stanislaus State student Isabel Hernandez. 

“I was brought to tears when I received notice that I was awarded the scholarship,” Hernandez said.  

Applying for this scholarship has been a goal of hers since she was an undergraduate student. She first reached out to the program’s campus coordinator in 2020, but she wasn’t confident enough to apply. This time was different. 

“I felt more confident after doing research and gaining experience,” she said. 

Hernandez worked as a research assistant in a lab at UC Merced and joined the lab of her thesis chair and mentor, Stan State Associate Professor of Psychology Kelly Cotter. The volunteer programs helped her toward her goal of pursuing her doctorate. 

“Many first-generation students don’t think they are qualified or deserving of scholarships like these, or maybe don’t even learn about them because their feelings of being an ‘outsider’ keeps them from developing strong relationships with faculty,” Cotter said. “It is important to get connected to the campus and take advantage of all its resources.”  

Cotter said Hernandez applied to volunteer in her lab to learn more about the process of conducting research in psychology and to gain research experience. Hernandez was always well-prepared and contributed to discussions, which signaled to Cotter she would make an excellent graduate student. 

“I wanted to work with someone who would be able to guide me and help me become a more competitive candidate when applying to a doctoral program.”

- Isabel Hernandez, Master of Psychology Candidate 

According to Hernandez, she was not always a good student. The 31-year-old is a single mom and a first-generation college student who had to work hard to get to where she is now. 

Before attending Stan State, Hernandez took 22 units in one semester at Modesto Junior College.  

“I had failed most, if not all, of my attempted courses for the first few years of being there,” she said. “I went from being placed on academic probation to academic dismissal for an entire year.”  

She transferred to Stan State in 2019. Hernandez received her bachelor’s in psychology in the fall of 2020 and is currently in her last semester of the Master of Arts in Psychology. 

“I am a late bloomer, but I put so much sweat into my academics,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what background you are from; you must believe in yourself.” 

She has also had a handful of educators who have cheered her on along the way. Hernandez recalls speaking with two different counselors who she is thankful for believing in her despite her challenges.  

“It’s people like that who help people like me believe in ourselves,” Hernandez said.  

She currently works as a substitute teacher and encourages her students who are struggling to keep pushing forward. 

“One word of advice I would give to students is to keep knocking on doors. I can’t tell you how many professors I emailed when I was looking for lab work.”  

Cotter said Hernandez is passionate about giving back to her community, and her research interests stem largely from her own experience as a first-generation college student as well as from her work with local high school students.  

“Isabel has told me she didn’t really know how to ‘do college’ and struggled when she initially started in higher education,” Cotter said. “One of her goals now is to understand how to better support first-generation students to be successful, and this is the topic of her master’s thesis.” 

She added that the Sally Casanova Scholarship will be extremely helpful to Hernandez as she pursues her doctorate because it will support her efforts to become a more competitive candidate for those programs.  

Hernandez says the scholarship will allow her to visit the Ph.D. granting institutions she is applying to and will cover application and test fees. 

Each Sally Casanova Scholar receives $5,000. The scholarship supports a plan developed with each student’s faculty mentor, which may include travel or materials such as reference books, software, journal subscriptions and a subsidy toward costs of doctoral program application fees and graduate entrance examinations.  

“The Sally Casanova Scholarship allows you to work one-on-one with a faculty mentor of your choice,” Hernandez said. “I wanted to work with someone who would be able to guide me and help me become a more competitive candidate when applying to a doctoral program. 

“Dr. Cotter is amazing,” she said. “She has helped guide me in the right  direction and hone in on what I am studying.”  

A study of former Sally Casanova Scholarship awardees indicates more than 40 percent enter a doctoral program by the term following their pre-doctoral scholar year. One reason for the program’s success is the demonstrated support from faculty sponsors. 

“Isabel is deserving of the award on her own merits, but I believe something that sets her apart is her dedication to serving others from her community,” Cotter said. “Thus, my advice to future applicants is to work hard on something you are passionate about and take advantage of opportunities that come your way.”  

Hernandez plans to pursue her doctorate in social psychology or cognitive psychology. She wants to become an academic advisor and teach psychology in higher education. 

“She represents many of our students who had life challenges and obstacles, but her resilience paid off,” said Dean of Graduate Studies and Research Haley Ye.  “Regardless of where you came from, what happened in the past, Stan State is a place for your new chapter of life, and you can succeed because faculty and staff are here to help you every step of the way.”