Q-A with SERP alum Kailea Saplan

The Summer Education Research Program (SERP) aims to encourage, promote, and prepare undergraduate students with diverse backgrounds to both pursue and thrive in their future graduate studies.

SERP is sponsored by UW–Madison’s School of Education and the university’s Graduate School, and it aims to increase opportunities for individuals to engage in important, independent research in fields across the arts, health, and education.

This work is guided by a faculty member or research associate mentor who is in, or affiliated with, the School of Education. The program offers a competitive $4,500 stipend for participants, as well as other amenities, including travel expenses to Madison and housing.

Over the years, SERP has prepared its student participants for a range of graduate programs and a variety of careers.

To give some insight into SERP and all that it has to offer, the communications team from the School of Education is interviewing SERP alumni who are willing to share their thoughts. Following is a Q-A with Kailea Saplan, who participated in SERP in 2015 and today is a PhD candidate with the UW–Madison School of Education’s highly regarded Department of Curriculum and Instruction.


How did you learn about SERP, and what made you interested in pursuing a mentored research experience? I first heard about SERP when I was a junior in undergrad. At that time, I was starting to figure out what to do with myself post-graduation. I was working on dual bachelor’s degrees in theatre and philosophy, and I had a vague interest in pursuing a career in the education sector. As a recipient of the Gates Millennium Scholarship I also had funding to attend graduate school if I pursued education research, but my family and I knew nothing about graduate school or academic research, and I didn’t know whether it was the right path for me.

A friend of mine had recently started his own graduate school journey in psychology at UW–Madison, and he initially alerted me to the existence of SERP. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to practice education research and work with faculty from a highly ranked school of education. The program’s focus on supporting historically marginalized youth also encouraged me to apply, because I felt assured that, in addition to receiving personal mentorship, I would have access to resources about navigating graduate school that my family couldn’t provide. Importantly, the program also covered the cost of travel expenses and housing for the duration of the program, and provided a competitive stipend which alleviated my financial concerns for the summer and ensured I would not have to split my attention between working and conducting research.

If I was accepted to attend SERP, I felt I would learn first-hand what it meant to pursue graduate studies in education and be able to make informed decisions about my future.

Where were you doing your undergrad work, and what were you majoring in when you decided to attend SERP? When I made my decision to apply to SERP, I was attending Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon — a small, private, liberal arts college outside of Portland, Oregon. At the time, I was pursuing two BA degrees, one in theatre and one in philosophy, and two minor degrees in Spanish and literature. These fields sparked my interest in studying arts learning and education, which I was able to explore during SERP.

What was your most meaningful experience or experiences from SERP? It’s difficult to say what my most meaningful experience was from SERP. I learned so much that summer about graduate school and about myself. For instance, it was incredibly important for me to practice research and recognize that I was both interested in and capable of pursuing graduate studies. The program helped ignite in me a sense of self efficacy that I have continued to nurture and develop over the course of seven years in graduate school. It was also extremely valuable to meet fellow undergraduate students in SERP from across the country who had similar concerns (practical and existential) and questions when it came to pursuing graduate degrees. And my faculty mentor through SERP ended up being one of the most important people in my life, professionally and personally. Overall, I think that SERP allowed me to expand my sense of self through my own research inquiry and through the meaningful connections I made.

Who was your faculty mentor, and what impact did that person (or other individuals) have on you and your SERP experience? When I was first applying to attend SERP, I scanned relevant departments at UW and emailed a handful of professors whose research interests aligned with mine, asking if they would mentor me in the event that I was accepted. Dr. Erica R. Halverson in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction was the only professor to respond, and to this day I’m so grateful that she did.

In her email, Dr. Halverson mentioned that she had never worked with the program before but expressed her interest in mentoring me and helping me with the application process. I’m certain that her enthusiasm and support had a big impact on my acceptance into the program. Dr. Halverson was an amazing mentor. Certainly, we shared common research interests when I attended SERP; that’s what initially brought us together. But she was also a theatre-kid-turned-learning-scientist, so she could relate on a personal level to my experiences and journey in higher education. Our personal and professional connection during the summer was so impactful that I decided to apply to work with her at UW, first as a master’s student and then as a PhD student. In addition to being a great mentor, Dr. Halverson has become a research collaborator, co-author, and most importantly, my friend.

What role did SERP play in your decision to pursue graduate studies? My experience with SERP directly encouraged me to pursue graduate studies. Without the opportunity to practice research in a supportive environment, I don’t know that I would have taken the leap of faith to pursue it. I applied to study under my SERP mentor, Dr. Halverson. With her continued support and mentorship, I earned a master of arts in Curriculum and Instruction (C&I) at UW in 2018, and I am currently in the fifth year of my PhD program in C&I, studying at the intersection of arts learning, informal education and assessment, and educational justice.

What advice do you have for future SERP scholars? I encourage future SERP scholars to treat the SERP program as a testing ground for their big, scholarly ideas and questions — a place to authentically explore their interests and uncertainties, rather than showcase their most polished selves. SERP offers an important opportunity to network with renowned scholars, but it also provides a chance for you to learn about yourself as a scholar in a safe environment. Resist the desire to engage in perfectionism and dig deeply to understand what you want to pursue in graduate school and how you want to pursue it. Use the available resources to their fullest and don’t be afraid to ask any of your “dumb” questions — now is the time to ask. Most importantly: have fun! Madison is beautiful in the summer.

Pin It on Pinterest