Identity’s impact on young learners the focus of Horizon winner’s research

NOTE: This is one in a series of articles on Brock’s 2023-24 Horizon Graduate Student Scholarship recipients. Read other stories in the series on The Brock News.

Oya Pakkal (MA ’23) wants to understand the psychological impacts of identity on learning.

The Brock University PhD student in Psychology says she is dedicated to enhancing the educational journey for adolescents who navigate multiple marginalized identities, both visible and invisible, by researching the complexities of how these young people experience and interact with educational environments.

She aims to develop strategies to acknowledge and support these unique identity-based challenges within the learning process through her research and teaching.

“In my various roles and jobs, I have worked a lot with youth who were marginalized, and I witnessed the impact of different identities and circumstances on their learning experiences and outcomes,” she says. “This made me curious about how different aspects of identity can influence learning and education journeys.”

Pakkal’s work recently saw her recognized with a Horizon Graduate Student Scholarship. Presented to 20 recipients each year, the Brock award supports high-achieving graduate students from research-based programs who identify as Black, Indigenous or People of Colour or from other under-represented groups. Recipients receive a one-time award of $5,000.

As an undergraduate student at McMaster University, Pakkal discovered parallel passions for psychology and for the scholarship of teaching and learning through a program that allowed her to collaborate with faculty on research projects related to pedagogy. But she didn’t think about graduate school right away.

Instead, Pakkal immersed herself in a career centred on youth engagement, spanning diverse roles from science communication to psychometry. She worked closely with individuals, assessing behavioural concerns and exploring the ecological systems affecting them. It wasn’t long before others pointed out her habit of posing research questions, particularly about the underlying factors influencing behaviour and well-being of the young individuals she worked with.

“In every assessment I would conduct for work for youth exhibiting challenging behaviours, my mind went to the broader ecological contexts — family, neighbourhood and policy-driven forces at play — and how these layers interact and influence one another,” Pakkal says. “I kept asking research questions, and my supervisors and employers noticed and encouraged me to pursue graduate school.”

Pakkal came to Brock, where she completed her Master of Arts (MA) thesis under the supervision of Associate Professor Elizabeth Shulman in Psychology. She worked on Shulman’s project to develop an original method to assess individuals’ ability to regulate emotion, and then used the approach in her thesis to explore age differences and the capacity to regulate negative emotions.

She also went to work putting her research into practice as a teaching assistant (TA). Last spring, Pakkal received the 2023 Teaching Assistant Award, presented by Brock’s Centre for Pedagogical Innovation.

“I find that we tend to focus on individuals who are overtly struggling, but I also want to reach those people who are slipping through the cracks, maybe because one or more of their identities is invisible,” Pakkal says of her responsibility as a TA. “I focus on fostering human connections, building relationships with students and creating a sense of safety, reaching out to students who feel anxious and making a game plan with them.”

Now a first-year PhD student, Pakkal is excited to develop her own research plan while also supporting projects underway by Assistant Professor Naomi Andrews in the Department of Child and Youth Studies and Rajiv Jhangiani, Vice-Provost, Teaching and Learning and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education.

Pakkal expresses deep gratitude for the mentorship of Andrews, Jhangiani and others, and acknowledges the invaluable guidance and encouragement she has received from supervisor Shulman.

She says she is also grateful for the financial support she has received from the Canadian Psychological Association and the American Psychological Foundation, as well as an Open Education Research Fellowship, the Ralph D. Morris Graduate Student Award, the Wendy Murphy Memorial Award and the Horizon Graduate Student Scholarship.

Pakkal learned that she would receive the Horizon award while preparing to defend her MA thesis — which she did only days before starting her PhD.

“I was working really hard and it just gave me that little boost of confidence,” she says. “The financial support was amazing, but it also gave me the confidence to continue on the academic journey and a greater sense of belief in myself and my potential.”

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