Q-A with SERP alum Mary Dueñas

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 Mary Dueñas, who participated in SERP in 2013 and today is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville:

How did you learn about SERP, and what interested you in pursuing a mentored research experience? I learned about SERP through a mentor who encouraged me to apply. What picqued my interest in pursuing a mentored research experience with SERP is the well-established reputation of the program for fostering cutting-edge research and offering students a unique opportunity to work closely with a faculty mentor in their respective fields. I was particularly drawn to the prospect of gaining hands-on research experience, deepening my understanding of Latiné college students in higher education, and contributing to meaningful research projects. This aligned perfectly with my academic and career aspirations, making it an exciting and invaluable opportunity for personal and professional growth.

Where were you doing your undergrad work, and what were you majoring in when you decided to attend SERP? I completed my undergraduate education at the University of California, Irvine, majoring in criminology, law, and society. I was involved in multiple academic support programs, student affairs organizations, and culturally responsive programs that drew me to consider graduate programs. During my time at UC Irvine, I learned about SERP and the opportunities it offered for mentored research experiences. My decision to attend SERP was driven by a desire to enrich my academic journey and gain practical research experience in counseling and higher education. The program’s reputation for providing a supportive environment for undergraduate researchers was an important factor and I am so happy I did it.

What was your most meaningful experience or experiences from SERP? For me, it was hands-on research, and contributing to ongoing projects was a transformative experience. It allowed me to apply theoretical knowledge to practical problems. The research work contributed to the broader body of knowledge in the field of higher education. I also had the opportunity to present my work, which helped me gain recognition in the academic community and at UW–Madison. I also worked/collaborated closely with a mentor who guided and supported research in a very meaningful way. It allowed me to learn from faculty of color and receive valuable feedback. Building a network of peers, fem/mentors, and professionals in their field was another meaningful experience, and these connections led to future opportunities. The cohort model we had during SERP truly helped me learn about the Madison community, and to this day, I keep in touch with a few of my cohort members. It was wonderful to have shared this experience with them, and I know they also pursued graduate studies after participating in the summer program.

What role did SERP play in your decision to pursue graduate studies? SERP played an important role in my pursuing a graduate degree. SERP offered me a range of experiences and opportunities that helped me explore research interests, build relevant skills, and make informed decisions about pursuing graduate school. It also provided a competitive advantage in the graduate school application process. The program provided opportunities to develop critical skills, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, data analysis, and project management. These skills were highly transferable and essential for graduate-level work. After participating in the SERP program, I earned a master’s degree from the Department of Counseling Psychology and a doctoral degree from the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at UW–Madison.

Did you learn anything from your SERP summer that helped prepare you to navigate graduate school? If yes, did this contribute to your eventual success in grad school? Students who participate in summer research programs find that the experience helps prepare them for graduate school and contributes to their success through research skills, mentorship, and networking opportunities. SERP clarified my academic and career goals, making me more focused and motivated when I entered graduate school. I also learned the importance of time management and organizational skills that were essential in graduate school.

What are you currently doing professionally? Did your time with SERP play a role in helping you get to where you are today? After defending my dissertation during the global pandemic, I accepted a position as a tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Part of my success in obtaining a tenure-track faculty post graduation is attributed to being a participant in the SERP program. It opened several doors, and I am grateful to have been in such an excellent program. My current research examines the ways in which larger social processes affect students and their overall well-being, while also addressing underrepresented and marginalized student retention and success. I focus my scholarship on qualitative and quantitative methods to examine students’ higher education experiences. I examine the experiences of underrepresented populations (i.e., Latinx/Hispanic/Black/African American individuals, first-generation college/college-going students, commuters, and those in STEM) and create pathways for which they can thrive and succeed in higher education, while critically thinking about systems and structures of oppression. I have publications that have been featured in the Journal of College Student Development, Journal of Latinos and Education, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, and Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences. More recently I have been selected as one of Diverse: Issues In Higher Education’s Emerging Scholars for 2024.

What advice do you have for future SERP scholars? For students seeking to become faculty members or be in academic communities, I highly encourage them to apply for the SERP program at UW–Madison. Madison is a top-tier and high-quality institution, and it provides several educational experiences that will serve as one of many starting points to graduate school. If you have any other questions about the program and/or my work, please get in touch with me via email at mduenas@utk.edu.

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