Our Collective Brains supports minority, first-gen UI students studying psychology

Graduate teaching assistants in the Psychology and Neuroscience Departments hope to reach minority and first-generation students through Our Collective Brains, a new organization.


Lily Smith

The Old Capitol is seen on Nov. 25, 2018.

Katie Ann McCarver, News Reporter

When Deja Knight entered college as an undergraduate, she was a minority and first-generation student who didn’t know how to form a study group or go to office hours. Now a University of Iowa graduate student, Knight helps others like her navigate the road of higher education.

Co-founder of Our Collective Brains, a program for minority and first-generation students in the Psychology and Neuroscience Departments, Knight works to ease the college experience for students who may not know how to seek out support and resources themselves.

“I didn’t grow up actually knowing how to ask for help, and if you don’t have that skill, it can very much stunt your progress,” Knight said. “One of the core features that makes someone really intelligent is the ability to say what they don’t know.”

As a first-year Ph.D. student in the Psychology Fepartment, she noticed as a teacher’s assistant that, of the students struggling the most, a small set identified as a minority, and a bigger set identified as first-generation. She decided she needed a way to reach them.

“I think mentoring is one of the best parts of being in academia,” she said. “I wanted to create a space for students like me who don’t even know what career path they want to go on, where they were able to explore those options.”

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With co-founder Mary Aldugom, Knight approached Professor John Freeman and then department head Professor Mark Blumberg with the idea for an organization that would support psych and neuroscience students of minority or first-gen status. Immediately, the idea took off.

Its name, Our Collective Brains, was coined by Knight. She said that, because the program caters to neuroscience and psychology students, she began to think about how everybody’s brains are so different, the different ways people can be reached, and how unique everyone is.

“There’s something beautiful about all of us coming together and sharing this moment with each other,” she said. “I want to see much, much, much more diversity in the kind of majors and minors we recruit in the program.”

A UI graduate student and TA, Aldugom said she wanted to give her students an open-door policy, because sometimes students from minority or first-generation backgrounds don’t know what questions to ask.

Although Our Collective Brains is officially only in its first year, Aldugom said, she wants to see it continue to grow in number so students are still receiving the support they need when all the original officers are gone.

“We just wanted to raise awareness in our department that this was an issue and then do something about it,” Aldugom said. “You go into a room, and there are people who look like you, and I think that’s an incredibly important thing.”

As a first-generation college student herself, Aldugom said, she knew little about how to communicate with professors and advisers and would have taken advantage of a resource such as Our Collective Brains had it been available to her as an undergraduate.

Incoming co-director Tobin Dykstra said the focus of Our Collective Brains is primarily support. Science is not an individual sport, he said, but rather, a team effort, so it’s important to provide information about resources with people that have shared experiences.

“A big goal that I have for this organization is to help people avoid that floundering about,” Dykstra said.


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