Class of 2022: Emma Keller


Emma is from Hampton, Virginia, and is graduating with her bachelor’s degree in Youth and Social Innovation.

What inspired you to want to pursue a career related to education and human development?

I'm biracial, so I've been talking about race and having race-related experiences for as long as I can remember. Growing up in an interracial household, you kind of have to talk about race. Those questions of identity – do I identify as Black, do I identify as half-Black, do I identify as biracial – and the idea that how I view myself may not align with how other people view me came up as early as elementary school. I also have a younger sister who is going through a similar identity development process, and I’ve been able to witness that. So, asking those questions, about what shapes racial identity and how family and friends can influence the way children identify, along with my own experiences, really sparked my interests in human development.

Why did you choose the UVA School of Education & Human Development for your program of study?

The Youth and Social Innovation program was the perfect combination of my interests in child psychology and in how socio-cultural factors impact development. I was also drawn to the social justice framework I found within the major. The courses that I got to take in the education school prioritize identifying spheres of influence outside of the individual, versus courses I took in other departments that focus more on what’s wrong with the individual. I really appreciated the outward-facing research and emphasis on community that frames the work being done in the education school.

The relationships I've been able to build with faculty were also a big influence on my decision. There’s a huge difference in how faculty care for their students in the education school. My interests were fueled by professors doing work I could see myself doing in the future. So, having the chance to learn from them is what ultimately kept me here.

What is the most significant thing that has shaped your time here?

I can share two courses I took that really broadened my worldview.

First year, taking Foundations of Community Engagement with Professor Levy – and going on a tour of Charlottesville to learn about Charlottesville history and the community’s relationship with UVA – shaped my time at UVA so greatly. It allowed me to understand the space that I'm taking up here and to be aware of our how history shapes my daily interactions with members of the Charlottesville community. I think having that experience at the very beginning of my time at UVA, when everything was still in-person and relatively normal, really shaped the kind of work I wanted to do outside of the classroom.

Another course I took was called Racial Identity Development in Schools taught by Dr. Joanna Williams. That course was the first time I’d seen bi- and multiracial youth as its own category with a unique racial identity development process. We spent so much time discussing how identity is formed in each racial group – how things overlap and how they're different. The foundational knowledge I got in this course helped me pursue my own research on the racial socialization of Black/White biracial youth.

What is one thing you learned during your studies that surprised you most?

In high school, I had no idea that racial identity development was even a field of study. Coming to UVA and discovering that this is something I can actually learn about and conduct research on shocked me. Being able to apply frameworks, psychological concepts, and models, to the complex things I was feeling about my own identity, opened up a whole new field of possibility for me in terms of the kind of research I can do and the kinds of questions I can ask. In many ways, it was also a personally validating experience that I didn’t expect from my academic studies at all.

If you can, name one person who has made a special impact during your studies and how?

Dr. Melissa Levy offered so much care and compassion for me. She used to read my Cavalier Daily articles and email me about them – little things like that mean the world to me. Dr. Levy showed she cared about me as an individual outside of the classroom. She shows the same level of care and intention to all her students. Dr. Levy is the kind of educator I’d like to be some day.

Dr. Chauncey Smith, as well, truly altered my worldview in his course on adolescent development. His lectures were my first academic exposure to racial identity and racial trauma. Getting involved with his research really showed me that a career in academia was something I could pursue. He really went out of his way to help me get into this field, to share the experiences that helped him as an undergraduate, and to support my ambitions of getting into graduate school since my second year here.

There’s a lot of other people I have not named, including my peers, research teams, and my YSI Cohort, who were so important to my time here too. I’m very grateful for the constant encouragement I’ve had in the education school and could not imagine my UVA experience without these people.

What will you be doing next?

I’m going to Stanford to get my Ph.D. in Developmental and Psychological Sciences with a specialization in Race, Inequality, and Language in Education. I’ll get to do lots of research with an advisor who very specifically focuses on Black adolescents and their mental health outcomes. I want to continue researching Black/White biracial youth in graduate school — examining how things differ by factors like racial socialization and identity, and what mental health outcomes look like for them based on their exposure to racial trauma and discrimination within and outside of the school system. I’m very excited to keep asking and answering big questions through research and to work directly in schools on the West Coast.