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Chico State

Broad Horizons Ahead for Master’s Candidate in Legal Psychology

Graduate student Arely Saldana smiles, wearing a formal black cardigan and a red shirt.
(Jason Halley / University Photographer)

In the coming weeks, we will be celebrating the accomplishments and stories behind 2024’s Lt. Rawlins Merit Scholarship Recipients. The award—one of the largest and most prestigious at Chico State—celebrates scholarship, extracurricular activities, and outstanding academic and professional accomplishments.

On a rainy Saturday in April 2018, Arely Saldana attended Choose Chico. Looking to transfer to a four-year institution from College of the Sequoias, she was impressed by the University, Chico’s small-town feel, and its friendly people—it felt familiar, like her small hometown in Mexico. Upon her 2014 graduation from high school in Mexico, Saldana immigrated to the United States by herself without knowing a word of English. With an inexhaustible drive to learn, Saldana earned her degree in psychology in 2020.  

Building on her success, she has gone on to pursue a master’s degree in psychological science (she hopes to earn her Master’s degree in May 2024). This year, Saldana was one of two Chico State graduate students recognized by the CSU as Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholars, which offers unique opportunities to explore and prepare to succeed in future doctoral programs. And this February, Saldana will be honored as a recipient of the 42nd annual Lt. Rawlins Merit Award. 

Saldana’s interests lie in legal psychology and political psychology, and she hopes to pursue her doctorate to further study the implications of circulating pre-trial information about a suspect or victim in the media. Psychology Department Associate Professor Patrick Johnson said that in the short time Saldana has been at Chico State, she has made an impression on those around her, while realizing her true potential. 

“Arely is now more confident than ever, and no longer second-guesses herself when speaking at our laboratory meetings or when interacting with professors in the department,” he said. “It’s this type of personal growth that we, as professors, hope to encourage and foster in our students.” 

What does this scholarship mean to you and what will it allow you to accomplish? 

I was really honored that I was nominated for the Rawlins Award. Before that, I didn’t know that was a possibility. I come from a low-income background, so when I got this award, it was really hard for me to believe. I cried a little bit because this will allow me to graduate from the master’s program without any debt, and that is a huge leg up in life. Once I finally start working, I can start saving money instead of having to pay out debts or worry about finances like that. 

What opportunities to gain hands-on working experience have you received at Chico State? 

Since I want to be a professor and a researcher at some point, right now I am doing three research projects. I’m helping Dr. Linda Kline with a project regarding the beliefs and attitudes about end-of-life, quality of life, and perceived appropriateness of euthanasia as a means to end the life of companion animals. We worked on this project during the Adelante Summer Researchers Program this year, and we are hoping to submit it for publication in the future. I’m part of the behavioral economics lab with Dr. Johnson, and we’re working on a project that aims to compare the delay discounting rates of real and hypothetical rewards in a within-subject, cross-commodity experimental design. We received the Student Award for Research and Creativity grant, which fully funded the study, and we are hoping to present the results at the Western Psychological Association Conference in San Francisco next year. And I’m currently working on my thesis. Those are great experience opportunities for a researcher. For teaching, I’m currently a TA for Dr. Johnson. I think talking to undergrads and helping them solve their coursework is excellent hands-on experience for teaching. 

What’s something not in your nomination form that would be fun to know about you? 

I’ve never been an expert at anything, but I see myself as a sort of jack of all trades. I like trying new things. When I was in high school, I was a belly dancer. I did Mexican folklorico dancing for a while. I’ve tried learning piano, I’ve tried learning Japanese. I’m not an expert at anything, but I’m always willing to try out new things and I really enjoy it. Personally, I believe this is the best time we have to try new things. 

Which programs or people have made a difference in your educational journey? 

I’m an outreach coordinator with the Adelante program. We help Latinx, low-income, and first-generation students who want to go to grad school to get there. We have workshops, mentorship programs, and a paid summer research program. For a lot of people, this is the first research experience they’ve ever had and a lot of them just fall in love with it, like I did, so they just go forward to the master’s program. We have an almost perfect acceptance rate for our mentees. Almost every Adelante mentee makes it into a master’s program here at Chico. I am the president of the Adelante Club, which is trying to follow the steps of the Adelante program in guiding undergrads on their path to grad school. I am also the President of the Council of Graduate Students, an organization that represents every grad student on campus.  

I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my partner, Alessandro. He’s been very supportive for the last five years. My mom, who recently came to the United States for the first time to stay legally, doesn’t know what I’m doing, but she’s always cheering for me. And my friends and advisors, Michael Pratt and Rose White from the Office of Graduate Studies, have been a great source of information. They are all a part of my success story. I feel like whatever I achieve, I would not have achieved it without the line of people behind me cheering for me.