Imagine a young child sitting on their mother’s lap in a college classroom, learning about human behavior before learning their ABCs.

Such was the case for Deja Shevalier when her mom decided to return to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology, while trying to balance her parental duties at the same time.

“I remember sitting in on classes with her when she was unable to find a babysitter. … My mother was graduating from college as we were graduating from kindergarten,” Shevalier said, referencing her twin brother, Jude.

Attending college classes as a child wasn’t Shevalier’s only experience with the subject—she said her mother also taught her and her twin brother, Jude, how to view the world through a psychological lens. With such early exposure to the study and practice of psychology, one might presume Shevalier would naturally gravitate toward the same academic pursuit, following in her mother’s footsteps. However, that wasn’t the case—at first. 

Despite her own love of learning and the example her mother set as a resolute nontraditional student, Shevalier said she didn’t consider herself a good student and did poorly in high school. Because of this, a college education became an afterthought, and it wasn’t until Jude died from a drug overdose in 2015 that she decided to take a hard look at her situation.

“It was his death that inspired me to change my life,” she said. “I left an abusive relationship and started taking classes at Butte College to better myself.”

With inspiration to guide her, attending community college proved to be a step in the right direction. Shevalier flourished. But even with the self-confidence in her academics she now possessed, she still couldn’t picture herself at a four-year university.

“I had not planned on pursuing a bachelor’s degree and wasn’t sure if I would be able to get into any programs,” Shevalier said. “When I learned that Butte had an on-the-spot [admissions agreement with Chico State], I figured I should try.”

Becoming a Wildcat furthered her journey in self-improvement. She became driven to study the psychological lens that her mother introduced her to—not just look through it. Instead of a career in counseling, she wanted to pursue research.

“Psychology can be used to understand more about everything that we do and that makes it a valuable major,” she said.

With her career goals finally clear, Shevalier’s undergraduate experience at Chico State became a blur of success. She worked as both an instructional student assistant and teaching assistant for the University’s Psychology Tutoring and Study Center and the Biological Psychology Lab, in addition to working as a research assistant in the Psychology Department. She also earned several accolades, including the George L. Parrott Outstanding Student Award, 2020 Psychology Outstanding Student Award, and Winzenz Family Psychology Award, as well as Magna Cum Laude and Honors in the Major recognition—not to mention Shevalier is an officer for the Chico State chapter of Psi Chi, an organization that her mother was named chapter president during her own time as a psychology major.

Shevalier also won a Lt. Robert Merton Rawlins Merit Award just before she completed her bachelor’s degree in May 2020. Not only is it one of the University’s highest honors, but it is one she is most proud of because she was nominated and didn’t have to apply, she said. The award celebrates scholarship, extracurricular activities, and outstanding academic, and professional accomplishments.

Psychology professor Patrick Johnson, who nominated her for the Rawlins award and remains her research mentor, was one of the faculty members who helped Shevalier cultivate her interest in psychological research. Together, they have been working on a study that combines their mutual interests in decision-making and substance abuse treatment, with novel findings that point to potential therapeutic targets for college students related to alcohol, cannabis, and tobacco use disorders. Shevalier is also conducting studies in the area of resilience and adverse childhood experiences, and continues to stand out in the classroom.

“I have known Deja [since the] beginning in August 2019, when she enrolled in my upper-division learning and behavior course, PSYC 466. Out of 48 students enrolled that semester, Deja was by far the top performer, exceeding 100 percent of the points possible and earning the highest A I have given since I arrived at Chico State in 2015,” he wrote. “In essence, Deja is exactly the kind of student every teacher hopes to have in their class and is lucky to ever have the chance to teach.”

Another faculty mentor, psychology professor Adelaide Harris, agrees. Shevalier has been an incredible asset to her and her peers in the brain dissection labs of “Biological Psychology,” thoughtfully and patiently answering questions, refining curriculum, and adding student perspective to the course itself.

“I have had the opportunity to witness Deja’s work ethic, intelligence, curiosity, and love of learning firsthand in having her as a student and a TA,” Harris said. “I know that her work has been exceptional and that she has demonstrated her ability to ask intelligent, curious questions and then put those to the test through well-designed research methods. … Deja Shevalier is destined for great things.”

A strong support system in the Psychology Department continues to build her confidence that she can set her sights as high as she dreams, said Shevalier, who began Chico State’s psychological sciences master’s degree program in fall 2020.

“From the moment I started taking classes in the department, I felt supported and encouraged,” she said. “I’ve found a sense of community that has helped me develop my skills as a student to be successful.”

As the accolades continue, in July 2021, she was named a 2021–22 Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholar by the California Pre-Doctoral Program Advisory Committee, which is comprised of faculty and administrators from the California State University and the University of California. The award includes a $3,000 scholarship to fund visits to doctoral-granting institutions, application fees, preparation for entrance exams, and other expenses related to the pursuit of a PhD.

On the heels of her second semester of graduate school and with the drive to be her best possible self, Shevalier is excited to pursue her doctorate. Staying true to her interest in research, she’s looking at behavioral neuroscience and behavioral pharmacology PhD programs—and hopes she’ll end up on the East Coast so she can be closer to family, she said.