University of Wisconsin–Madison

Investment in One is Investment in Many

As an undergraduate at the University of Central Florida, Desia Bacon, PhDx’23 benefited from her relationship with faculty mentors who recognized her ambition and passion for the field as marks of a future graduate student.

Their support helped Bacon land a summer research position with the University of California–San Diego’s Language and Development Lab, where she became interested in how children’s social category development and language development intersect, and how they may feed or hinder one another.

That interest led her to Dr. Jenny Saffran, who runs the Infant Learning Lab at UW–Madison.

In a call with Saffran just after applying for graduate school, Bacon identified the same warmth and interest in Saffran that she had received from earlier mentors. During her first visit to Madison, Bacon recalled that the department seemed “more collaborative [than other schools]. Faculty were excited not just about their own work, but about sharing the work of other faculty and grad students. It felt welcoming – and that was important not only for fostering my academic success, but also, being so far away from home and feeling like I had a place to belong. And I knew how important that was after studying it in undergrad.”

After her acceptance to UW–Madison’s Department of Psychology PhD program, Bacon received the Kenneth and Mamie Clark Award, a gift of Dr. Leslie H. Hicks, Jr., PhD’54, which honors the Clarks, African-American psychologists who conducted important research among children and were active in the Civil Rights Movement. Hicks earned his PhD at UW–Madison under Harry Harlow, becoming one of the first African Americans to earn a PhD in behavioral neuroscience. The award is presented to a student of color or a first-generation college student who is entering the PhD program to help ease the transition to grad school.

Since graduate students often don’t receive their first paycheck until October 1, this gift goes a long way in helping students get their feet under them as they begin their studies.

One of Bacon’s first purchases with the award was her bike (“and helmet!”). Since grad students arrive nearly a month before the fall student bus pass is available, the bike became her main source of transportation. Additional creature comforts like blackout curtains kept the hot sun out of her apartment while she studied.

The award helped keep Bacon afloat in the first year so that she could maintain her academic focus and invest in her research – both the content and her colleagues.

“I really like mentoring – getting to work with undergrads in the lab, not just having them code, but asking them what they’re thinking of doing next, what courses they might want to take.” After graduation, Bacon has her eye on remaining in academia, with a commitment to investing in others, as she herself experienced. “If I can help students get the best education I can, why not do that