Feature Stories 2023: Alejandra PonceLopez '24: Bringing compassion to medicine

Honors College psychology major
Feature Stories 2023: Alejandra PonceLopez '24: Bringing compassion to medicine
Alejandra PonceLopez '24: Bringing compassion to medicine

Inspired by her undergraduate research, Honors psychology major and first-generation college student hopes to earn a medical and PhD degree

As a child and teenager, Honors College psychology major Alejandra PonceLopez '24 found herself in hospital emergency rooms often. Her parents, who immigrated from Honduras, suffered from multiple health issues and she would go with them to translate for her mother, who didn't speak English. 

After experiencing the frustration caused by this language barrier, PonceLopez began to dream of a career in medicine. She chose to major in psychology, a degree that she believes will help her bring compassion and and empathy to her patients.

One of five children, PonceLopez is the first to be born in the United States. Like many first-generation college students, she is grateful for the financial support she received at UMass Dartmouth. To supplement her financial aid, PonceLopez works up to 24 hours a week on campus and in a residential treatment program on weekends that serves children with severe social and behavioral issues. She also interns at the Justice Resource Institute in their TAP program for young children struggling with behavioral disorders.

She is working with Dr. Kristen Sethares of the College of Nursing & Health Sciences on an Honors College research project focusing on impostor syndrome and its effect on college students. Through this collaboration, PonceLopez has developed a love for research and hopes to combine a medical degree with a PhD to earn a doctor of science.

While dedicated to her academics, PonceLopez has found time for fun and friendships as a member of the UMass Dartmouth cheer team. She enjoys the physical challenges of the sport and the excitement of cheering for the Corsair football and basketball teams.

UMass Dartmouth Experience

Why did you choose UMassD and your area of study?

"I chose UMassD because it was the most affordable option for me. As a first-generation student, financial stability was one of the determining factors in choosing a university to attend, and UMassD made that easy for me by being the school that offered me the most scholarships and financial security. 

"Although I ultimately want to pursue a career in the medical field, I chose to major in psychology because one of the large focuses in the field involves employing the skills of empathy and compassion. A critical, and yet forgotten, aspect of being a doctor is warmth and genuine care for others. I knew I would learn the hard sciences anyway, so I chose to take a deep-dive in psychology.

"In psychology, I learned more about the mind-body connection, which is more conducive to a healthy life in general. You have to take care of a patient’s mental health as well as their physical health. Psychology often involves helping clients through therapy, so there is a lot of emphasis on building client rapport, trust, and open lines of communication with patients."

Do you live on campus?

"Yes, I live on campus. Living on campus taught me a lot about independence. Being away from home requires more responsibility in terms of taking care of yourself, and it slowly eased me into learning and applying important skills such as cleaning, cooking, organization, time management, and even self-advocacy."

Are you involved in any campus activities or athletics? 

"I am the vice president of the Pre-Health Society and the treasurer of Corsair Cheer. I have been in both clubs for about two years and worked my way up to leadership positions in each one.

"While Corsair Cheer is a physical activity, the Pre-Health Society is geared toward helping students navigate their way toward their desired health career, whether they go to medical, dental, physician assistant, or another school after college. I have met lots of people in both clubs that I would not have met otherwise. Being in these clubs made me feel more like I was part of UMassD.

"I like the commitment to cheering. We practice a lot of teamwork and togetherness. The physical aspect is more challenging because we do a lot of lifting and flips, which require a good amount of strength. The cheering competitions are so exciting. We went to one in Florida and came in fourth place last year. It’s so fun to see the whole school come together at a game."

Treasurer, Corsair Cheer
PonceLopez '24 is treasurer of Corsair Cheer and enjoys the excitment of cheering competitions and UMassD athletics.

Have you done an internship?

"Yes, I am currently doing an internship at the Justice Resource Institute in their TAP program for young children struggling with behavioral issues. I have learned so much about myself as both a psychologist and as a person, and it helps monumentally to apply what we learn in the classroom to the field.

"This internship has given me a better sense of what a career in the psychology field looks like, what career I want to pursue, what I can bring to the table, and what I want from the field. Most importantly, this internship has done the most to prepare me for life after college and it has made the future seem much less daunting and more attainable."  

Do you have a job on- or off-campus?

"I work multiple jobs on campus and have a part-time, off-campus job as well. On-campus, I work as an office assistant at the Office of Student Accessibility Services as well as a research assistant for an interdisciplinary study I am working on with a couple of other students and faculty members. I also work a part-time job on the weekends at Walker, Inc., where I work in a trauma-informed residential program that serves children with severe social and behavioral issues."

What do you think makes UMassD special?

"The support from the faculty makes UMassD special. Whether it be a research study, a new club, or even an internship, there is always a faculty member who is willing to help students make that a reality. 

"The faculty I have worked with have been dedicated to the success of their students and have challenged me to promote my growth as both a student and a person. While they encourage me to push out of my comfort zone, they are also understanding and supportive when it comes to my personal fears and mistakes. If not for the support of the faculty, many of the things I managed to accomplish during my undergraduate career would not have been possible."

Honors College Experience 

How has your experience been in the Honors College? How has it enhanced your experience at UMass Dartmouth? 

"I have had an amazing experience with the Honors College. One of the requirements of graduating with Honors is to conduct an independent research study, and this alone has done so much to enrich my experience as an undergraduate. I learned the process of creating a research study and I can safely say no other assignment has challenged me or taught me as much as this one. It is an incredibly rewarding experience to watch an idea go from being on paper to playing out in real life."

What have been the advantages for you?

"The biggest advantage, in my opinion, is the faculty I am able to work with. The faculty are dedicated to student success and are incredibly supportive and understanding. Even when I feel overwhelmed, an Honors faculty member is there to check up on me and/or encourage me to push through and finish strong.

"Besides the faculty, however, there are smaller perks like being able to use the Honors study room, the Honors Annex, and even being able to hang out in the Honors office with GPA, the Honors College goldfish." 

Research

What is the title of your Honors College APEX research project? 

Impostor Syndrome and Diversity: Race, Ethnicity, and Generation 

Can you explain impostor syndrome and what you are researching?

"Impostor syndrome is feeling like you don’t belong, like you’re not supposed to be there. Everyone seems to be experiencing it. Performance is a huge variable, feeling like you’re not good enough. Impostor syndrome can impact your self-worth and motivation. Students drop courses and change majors because they feel they can’t succeed.

"I am researching the potential predictors of impostor syndrome and potential demographic variables that may exacerbate this experience, such as race, ethnicity, and first-generation status. Many factors have shown to be related to impostor syndrome, such as perfectionism, self-esteem, mental health, and diversity-related stressors, so I am investigating if those variables influence the students here at UMassD who experience impostor syndrome. I am writing a paper and am excited to present it at a conference at UMass Amherst."

What has been your experience working with faculty on your research?

"I have a great relationship with my research advisor, Dr. Kristen Sethares, professor of nursing & health sciences, and my committee members, Dr. Chin and Dr. Nicholas Zambrotta, assistant teaching professor, who are readily available whenever I need extra support. In all, the faculty I work with have never made me feel like I had to fend for myself and have been incredibly helpful in my navigation through the research process."

How has your research project affected your educational experience?

"This research project has taught me so much in terms of what research is and how it is conducted. Most importantly, though, this project has been one of the most challenging assignments I have ever undertaken, and the fact that I am almost finished with it is so rewarding. It is one of my proudest works, and I cannot wait to be able to present my research at a conference next semester." 

Has your research impacted your plans for future employment or graduate school?

"Conducting this research has made me develop a passion for research, and I am now striving for an MD/PhD program in medical school to be able to continue conducting research throughout my medical career."

What advice would you give UMass Dartmouth students?

"l'd encourage them to reach out to faculty. During my independent study, I have been amazed at how much professors are willing to help students here. They make themselves available whenever you need help."

Future Plans 

What are you plans after graduation?

"After graduation, I plan to take a gap year before applying to medical schools. College has been a great experience, but I need to come up for air before going into the next big thing. I plan to keep working in mental health settings, but hopefully gain experience in other jobs that are more medical-related. I also plan to study for my MCAT.

"After my gap year, I plan to apply to medical schools for an MD/PhD program and ultimately become an OB-GYN. I’m fascinated with women's health and I feel that this is a good place to be with a psychology background."