Mentors Who Inspire: Karlyn Adams-Wiggins, PhD, Encourages Colleagues, Mentees to Stay the Course

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By Melissa Simon

Karlyn Adams-Wiggins, PhD, is an assistant professor of applied developmental psychology and a mentor for the BUILD EXITO program at Portland State University who uses they/she pronouns. They are interested in the intersection of academic achievement, motivation and identity, with a specific focus on how adolescents’ identities are negotiated in social interactions. 


Karlyn Adams-Wiggins, PhD, was on track to become a psychiatrist, but a stint as a home health aide and an interaction with a women’s and gender studies professor would reshape their career path. 

During their first year in their undergraduate program at Lafayette College, Adams-Wiggins encountered a psychiatrist while working as a home health aide. The psychiatrist did not impress Adams-Wiggins and they began questioning whether that was the right path for them.

Adams-Wiggins found a new direction during their junior year of their undergraduate education while taking a course on single motherhood in the United States taught by professor Debbie Byrd, PhD. 

Byrd invited Adams-Wiggins to do research with her over winter break on developing tools for single mothers that would identify available resources and how they could access them. Adams-Wiggins, a first-generation college student, said it was a welcome and unexpected change from a former professor who was unsupportive of their goals. 

Another Lafayette College faculty mentor, professor Susan Basow, PhD, further encouraged Adams-Wiggins to pursue an academic career. Prior to this support, becoming a professor or researcher was not part of the game plan. Originally, Adams-Wiggins hoped to find a high-paying career, since they came from a working-class household and had done well in high school STEM courses. 

“I was frankly of the mind that people like me were not who became professors [because] that's for someone else who's significantly smarter than me,” Adams-Wiggins said, now an assistant professor of applied developmental psychology at Portland State University and a mentor for PSU’s BUILD EXITO.

Despite being unsure of whether to go into academia, they said becoming a mentor was always part of their plan because having a career where they could invest in young people, especially youth of color whose parents did not attend college, was important. They have also become more passionate about guiding non-traditional age and transfer students. 

“You’ve got a whole career ahead of you to keep doing this, so stay the course, keep trying [and] improving... [Mentoring] matters and you know it’s vital [to student success].”

— Karlyn Adams-Wiggins

Adams-Wiggins said they are most motivated by watching the “‘aha’ moments, the light bulbs” that students get when they overcome their doubt and realize they are capable researchers.

“I’ve been there and . . . I jokingly tell people [that] my first semester grades were A, B, C and D. Seeing them bounce back as they develop a new pathway is also exciting,” Adams-Wiggins said. “I do also cross my fingers…that they go on to be a mentor themselves because there's always someone else who just wants or needs someone to actually care what in the world happens.”

When asked what makes a good mentor, Adams-Wiggins said it is someone who is open to feedback, has an undying belief that students can accomplish what they set their minds to, and is willing to do whatever necessary to help them succeed. 

On the other side of the mentoring relationship, Adams-Wiggins said it’s important for students to recognize when another person might be a better fit as a mentor. A different person might have more experience or the resources the mentee needs, or as Adams-Wiggins calls it, ‘scaffolding’—being highly attuned to tweaking, revising, and reconstructing the scaffolds put in place to help students advance.

Reflecting on their own path as a mentor, Adams-Wiggins said they would encourage fellow mentors to not give up working with their mentees, even if something does not go right the first time.

“You’ve got a whole career ahead of you to keep doing this, so stay the course, keep trying [and] improving,” they said. “[Mentoring] matters and you know it’s vital [to student success].”

To graduate students, Adams-Wiggins would say there is a light at the end of the tunnel, so stay focused. They also recommend students set aside time to do something that “fills the soul,” like pursuing their own interests outside the classroom or tutoring. 

As for new researchers just starting out in their education, Adams-Wiggins said the culture of STEM can be alienating and too often focuses on social comparisons, rather than seeing an individual’s progress. 

“All of those things are a problem, but they're also changeable,” Adams-Wiggins said. “These are things that we, as humans, have the power to do something about. So… think about yourself as the next generation of STEM that will change that culture.”

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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