Q&A with 2024 spring graduate, Pauline Ho

On May 10-11, UW–Madison and the School of Education will celebrate its latest cohort of talented graduates with 2024 Spring Commencement celebrations. Ahead of this big weekend, we reached out to a few of our graduating students to learn more about their accomplishments, time at UW–Madison, and future plans.

Pauline Ho

Pauline Ho, who is graduating with a PhD in Educational Psychology, is one student who agreed to share their thoughts with us. Ho’s path to earning her doctorate has not always been easy: 

“When I started this program, I had just $3,000 in my bank account, no background in psychology, and English was my fourth language,” she says. “As a first-generation college student, neither of my parents had finished elementary school.”

Though she has encountered numerous challenges, Ho has shown a remarkable ability to turn those challenges into opportunities and mentor first-generation college students like herself.

Her research focuses on identity development, and she notes that this interest stems from her own quest to answer the questions: “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?”

Read on to learn more about Ho:

Where are you from, and what brought you to UW–Madison? I grew up in a rural area in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States, settling in Los Angeles when I was 12, with no knowledge of English. I completed my undergraduate degree in education sciences and social policy and public services at the University of California, Irvine. My involvement in educational research dates back to my freshman year at UC Irvine when I focused on instructional practices within classrooms and their impact on the educational experiences of underrepresented students.

I applied to UW–Madison’s Ed Psych program primarily due to its top-ranked status and my interest in understanding how individual development influences educational experiences. Another significant factor in my decision to come here was its full funding package; I was fortunate to receive support for my PhD studies from both the WCER Fellowship and the School of Education’s Graduate Research Scholars (Ed-GRS) program.

Your research focuses on identity development. Can you share a bit more about this work, how it came about, and why it’s important to you? When I started this program, I had just $3,000 in my bank account, no background in psychology, and English was my fourth language. As a first-generation college student, neither of my parents had finished elementary school. Additionally, this was my first experience at a predominantly white institution, and I was grappling with the challenges of being a survivor of depression — struggling with self-doubt, low self-esteem, and constant worries about others’ perceptions of me. The identity crisis hit me hard during my first two years at UW–Madison, leading me to take a break from school in my second year due to depression again.

My interest in identity development stems from my quest to answer the questions, “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” Determined to find answers, I returned in my third year. I chose to focus on ethnic-racial identity for my master’s thesis and professional identity for my dissertation, as both have been personally significant to me in recent years.

Born in Vietnam, raised in Chinese culture, and now a naturalized U.S. citizen, I often feel like I don’t fully belong to any one group; I am unable to completely relate to any culture. Existing theories fail to fully explain my situation, motivating me to explore how people come to understand their ethnic-racial identity and its diversity.

I also struggled with defining who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, prompting further exploration of this topic when considering my dissertation. For my dissertation, I’m focusing on professional identity development, specifically in nursing. The pandemic has provided a unique opportunity to study how nursing students develop their professional identities within a shared context that affects everyone.

My work in identity development emphasizes the diversity and uniqueness of people’s experiences and stresses that individuals are the active agents of their own development. I not only live this belief, but it is also my mentoring philosophy when I work with others. For example, when I have worked with undergraduates (20 so far), I always provided the opportunity and encouraged them to reflect on their experiences and find their passions. Some of my current undergrads will be attending graduate schools next fall at Harvard, UPenn, Vanderbilt, and Columbia. I recently received the Award for Mentoring Undergraduates in Research, Scholarly and Creative Activities, and am the first graduate student to receive this award in the School of Education.

Can you share some challenges you’ve encountered during your path, and how you’ve worked to overcome them? Given my starting point, this journey has been undoubtedly challenging. Over the past few years, I’ve faced 15 rejections across various domains including grants, awards, scholarships, fellowships, and journal submissions. However, in most cases, I persisted by reapplying and ultimately succeeded. During my time at UW–Madison, I have been awarded approximately $25,000 for research grants, awards, and scholarships, totaling 12 in number. Both my work and the work of my undergraduates have been honored with Best Research Awards at international conferences. 

One notable example is my experience with my master’s thesis in 2018. Initially lacking a strong understanding of theories, the project did not yield the desired results. Upon returning, I reworked my proposal and relaunched the research. After two years, I successfully defended my master’s thesis and submitted it to a journal, only to face a desk rejection due to sample-size constraints. But I opted to redo the study, which consumed another 1.5 years. Finally, it is set to be published in Developmental Psychology, a top-tier journal in my field that rarely publishes qualitative work. Although the project demanded 4.5 years of dedication, it documented my growth as a scholar — being grant-funded, recognized with conference accolades, and on the verge of publication.

What have been some meaningful experiences at UW–Madison? My advisor, Brad Brown, the WCER program, and my research collaboration during the pandemic have been especially impactful.

  • Advisor: I vividly recall a moment during my first year when we were hanging out at Brad’s house, and everyone was playing ping-pong. I was scared to join in because I was afraid of messing up and revealing that I wasn’t good enough. Then, Brad approached me and said, “You can’t learn if you don’t try.” This message has stayed with me until today, influencing every facet of my life. Brad is known to be a very challenging professor with an incredible understanding of theory. I, on the other hand, used to dislike theories. In his theory class, I received the lowest grade on the exam. In the past seven years, he has always challenged me with difficult questions, but he’s also always there for me when I need support and encouragement, especially when applying for opportunities.
  • The WCER Fellows program holds a seminar every Friday, bringing together all fellows to discuss research, graduate school, and life. During my first two years, this served as a valuable safety net or safe space for me to openly address my imposter syndrome and seek answers to questions about graduate school and research. I also recall presenting our research ideas during these seminars and having the opportunity to receive supportive feedback from each other.
  • COVID-19 Communication Task Force: In the spring of 2020, I joined a group of interdisciplinary researchers, outreach specialists, and practitioners who came together to encourage Wisconsin residents to adhere to physical or social distancing guidelines using evidence-based public health recommendations and communication and behavior change best practices. It was amazing to see how diverse the team was and how willing everyone was to work together to tackle this challenge. This was also my first experience witnessing the Wisconsin Idea in action from beginning to end. Our collaborative efforts not only resulted in practical recommendations being implemented but also led to my first authored publication. This experience truly underscored the value of interdisciplinary work and the importance of addressing real-life problems through research.

What’s next for you? What are your plans for the future? I will be a visiting assistant professor in developmental psychology at Reed College. One major aspect of my responsibilities at Reed will be to mentor undergraduates in conducting their senior thesis research. My ultimate career goal is to secure a tenure-track faculty position at a research-intensive university like UW–Madison.

Thinking about the principle of the Wisconsin Idea, how will you use what you have learned at UW–Madison to influence other people’s lives or positively impact our world? Looking ahead, I aim to continue leveraging what I’ve learned at UW–Madison to positively influence others’ lives and contribute to our world. I intend to apply the principles of the Wisconsin Idea by engaging in collaborative research and outreach initiatives that address pressing societal issues and promote healthy identity development.

Whether through mentoring, teaching, or conducting research, I strive to empower individuals to recognize their potential, find their unique identities, and effect positive change in their communities.

As a scholar, my long-term goals are: 1) to conduct meaningful research that positions individuals as active agents in their development, 2) to advance our understanding of the complex relationship between human development and educational experiences, and 3) to generate recommendations aimed at fostering healthy development and creating equitable, inclusive learning environments.

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