When Katie James visited UNM’s campus for the first time, the Honors College students she met gave her a piece of advice that would inform her entire college experience –– UNM has abundant resources available to students who want to use them.
It was that information that set the stage for years of research opportunities, mentorship programs and close friendships for James, who will graduate in the Spring 2023 semester with a dual degree in psychology and biology with minors in math and chemistry.
As soon as the out-of-state student arrived at her dorm in the Scholars’ Wing of Hokona Hall, worries about not knowing anyone on campus melted away.
“People were really respectful about living with each other, but also really active in creating a community,” she said. “It was really like living with all of your best friends.”
Students in the dorms would leave their doors open to hang out and talk, but would give each other the space to study, too. The dorm was one of the first places she connected with other students. Now seniors, she and her dorm roommate turned close friend live together off-campus.
Classes gave James the opportunity to understand her classmates more deeply. All honors students are required to take an interdisciplinary Legacy seminar class their first semester. James chose to take Legacy of the Renegade, a course that explored the trajectory of people who forged their own path in modern American frontiers. On the first day, students got to know each other through a twist on speed dating. Each Legacy seminar has a different topic, but all of them focus on contemplative, interdisciplinary conversations.
“The discussions in the class are seminar style and so you actually get to know people. You know their names and their core values at the end of the day, because you’re talking about quite deep interdisciplinary topics,” she said.
After Legacy of the Renegade, James took classes in a variety of subjects. Her favorites were courses that helped her engage creatively outside her STEM-heavy majors, including a class about the human rights of college students, which encouraged students to identify challenges in the UNM community and seek solutions, and one on the creative process in New Mexico.
In and outside of classes, James continued to grab hold of every opportunity she could, getting involved in research from her first semester of college and working her way up to leadership in the Pathmakers Program, which pairs Honors freshman with a student mentor.
“It’s definitely brought me closer to Honors, in terms of knowing every single faculty and staff member. The dean is even writing my letters of recommendation for grad school. It’s just a really nice community,” she said.
Pathmakers hosts events like trivia nights, volunteering opportunities and various workshops throughout the year. As a senior, James heads up the leadership team and helps match students together.
“Some of my favorite Pathmaker experiences have been service activities in the community, including Mandy’s Farm, Roadrunner Food Bank, and Watermelon Mountain Ranch,” James said. “Growing from mentee to mentor to events coordinator to program coordinator has been really enriching.”
James, who has a disability, also sits on the Honors Diversity Committee alongside faculty and staff working to identify how best to support and recruit students from underrepresented backgrounds. The Honors College makes an active effort to invite students to many of its committees, she said.
“It’s been really interesting to learn how to best support my peers and the people on this committee are very passionate about it,” James said. “I’ve really enjoyed having an outlet for all these lived experiences that maybe haven’t been the best, to make them good for something.”
The committee has been able to meet several of the goals it has set for itself in the past few years, like increasing recruitment funding for students in and outside of New Mexico.
James jumped into research at UNM early. With a strong interest in neuroscience, she applied to the UNM STEM mentoring program during her first semester, which paired her with Laura Berkowitz, a then-UNM graduate student doing neuroscience research in the Department of Psychology. James was able to assist Berkowitz with her research on spatial navigation deficits of animals modeling Alzheimer’s Disease. She immediately fell in love with the topic.
During her time at UNM, James has done research internships at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota, as well as worked on four major research projects. Through her research experience, she’s been able to study cancer biology, ADHD, autism, traumatic brain injury and neurodegenerative disease. Her experiences have offered her the chance to learn about a variety of disease pathologies, but the topics she explored her very first semester at UNM is still what interests her most.
“If you want to do research, you are never under-qualified to do it,” she said. “People with the authority to give you a research position only want to know that you are interested in the work, because then they know you will put in the time to learn the skills.”
Whether it be getting the most out of an experience in the Honors College or the best way to get into research, James’s college experience echoes the advice she received during her first visit to UNM, get involved any way you can.