Psychology Alumni Spotlight: Helen Rottier, Disability Cultural Center

UW-Madison Psychology alumna and Disability Cultural Center Program Coordinator Helen Rottier

Helen Rottier ‘18 landed what she calls  “the most fun job I could imagine anyone having” while still in graduate school thanks to routinely checking her email.

That job – Program Coordinator for UW-Madison’s Disability Cultural Center, which Rottier still holds – hadn’t been on her radar as an undergraduate psychology student at UW-Madison. Back then, her heart was set on clinical psychology or art therapy. But required courses like Psych 225: Research Methods and an opportunity to work in Dr. Sigan Hartley’s lab with autistic children nurtured a growing interest in research, prompting her to enter a developmental psychology graduate program at the University of Illinois Chicago. There, her path pivoted yet again when she was offered the opportunity to run and rebuild a mentorship program that had previously existed as a clinical support program for autistic and neurodivergent college students.

“I started running that program and really changed the ethos of it so that it wasn’t like ‘you are a problem because you are autistic,’” Rottier says. “I focused on ‘how can autistic students learn from other autistic students?’ versus learning to hide or cloak their autism and symptoms.”

Rottier decided to focus her dissertation on these concepts of learning from one another rather than masking neurodivergence. Throughout her graduate program, Rottier evaluated how postsecondary education could be made more accessible and inclusive for students with disabilities. She was mentored by UW-Madison Psychology professor, Dr. Morton Gernsbacher, who is also on her dissertation committee. “She’s really helped me shape my trajectory through research and through the scholar practitioner work that I do,” Rottier says.

Rottier enjoyed experiences of working with young adults through the Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disability (TPSID) program in Illinois. All of the opportunities she had to work with college students informed her research agenda and influenced her thoughts about future goals.

She originally planned to enter the academic job market in search of a faculty position after finishing her dissertation, but when she saw the job posting for Program Coordinator of UW-Madison’s Disability Cultural Center, she thought she would apply just for practice. She was familiar with those types of centers as they had a similar one at UIC.

Rottier thought she wouldn’t be an ideal candidate because she had not yet finished her dissertation, but as she completed more rounds of interviews, she began to realize how much she truly wanted the job.

“I think I went in with realistic expectations,” Rottier says. “I knew that I had some qualifications for this job and I wasn’t staking everything on it. When I did realize how much I wanted this job, I was excited when I got the offer.”

Rottier’s undergraduate degree in psychology still helps her navigate this job. “When you’re learning about people, communities, and the way the mind and behavior work, that shows up in every part of our lives,” Rottier says. “Especially in the work that I do with people who have lived experience of psychiatric disabilities, or other non-apparent disabilities, recognizing how the body and mind are entangled, working together and influenced by the environment are things we take away from psychology as we think about the interactions between people in their environments.”

Rottier recognizes that psychology can apply to a lot of careers because it is very broad, so her advice to current psychology majors thinking about future careers is to tailor their skills and knowledge to the jobs they are applying for, like emphasizing persuasive skills to a communications-based job.

She also recommends building community connections to whatever field students are looking at and always scanning job emails. 

“I got my current job from a listserv,” Rottier says. “When I saw it was UW-Madison, I thought this might be the one. Knowing people and knowing the opportunities that are available can be the thing that gets you into the place you want to go.”

Written by Kate Lewicki x’26