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Blugold psychology grad says the biggest lesson from UW-Eau Claire was learning self-advocacy

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Because he knows the value of personal connection and encouragement, Cameron Merline spent three of his years as a Blugold tutoring fellow students in the Academic Skills Center where he enjoyed sharing his depth of knowledge in writing, research methods and psychology. (Photos by Bill Hoepner)

To meet University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduating psychology major Cameron Merline today is to see a highly accomplished student researcher who has widely presented his findings, held multiple psychology internships and been a longtime peer tutor and mentor.

And before he entered college, he took a gap year to become an AmeriCorps intern working in a different state with elementary school children facing various types of adversity.

It would be hard to envision that Cameron Merline as someone who ever lacked self-confidence or assertiveness, was uneasy talking about himself or his accomplishments, someone who says he had to teach himself how to go after his interests and make his goals happen.

But Merline says that is indeed the case.

“One of the most important things I’ve learned as a Blugold is self-advocacy,” the Madison native says. “It took me a while to figure out that opportunities for things in college, like research or internships, don’t just fall into your lap. I had to learn how to reach out to faculty, to make my interests known. I missed out on early opportunities; I wish I’d learned those things earlier.”

Merline says that getting further opportunities meant he would have to promote himself and his skills — something that did not come naturally.

“It really took a lot of effort for a while,” Merline says about breaking from his innately modest demeanor. “I’m still working on that part for sure, talking about the work I’ve done and feeling proud, acknowledging that it has value and importance to others.”

Luckily for Merline and the many Blugold students and area children his internships have helped, he quickly discovered that when one door opens, another is soon to follow. His wide range of high-impact student experiences have prepared him well for the biggest door of all — graduate school in developmental psychology.

From McNair research to psychology internships, a focus on youth development

student presenting research in large classroom with white board

In early December, all McNair Scholars presented their research projects in Centennial Hall to faculty, staff and students. Merline says the McNair research experience helped solidify his desire to pursue a doctoral degree in psychology.

Merline combined his psychology major with a neuroscience minor. Especially interested in childhood and adolescent development, he has sought out high-impact opportunities that focus on younger populations, from his topics of research to the target audiences of outreach and internship work.

“I’ve been doing collaborative research for over a year with Dr. Mary Beth Leibham, examining parental involvement and how it impacts college students and their transition into adulthood,” Merline says.

“We have examined what we called ‘overparenting’ and how it later impacts student transitions to adulthood. We looked at things like resiliency, self-efficacy and fear of negative evaluation among college students. For my project in the Ronald E. McNair program, I expanded this study to compare those impacts on students with disabilities versus those without.”

Leibham, who selected Merline to present his project to the UW System Board of Regents earlier this fall, says he is an especially talented student and researcher whose genuine desire to help others will guide his future.

“I have been most impressed with his consistent curiosity, motivation and strong work ethic,” Leibham, a professor of psychology, says. “Cameron’s strong interpersonal skills, intellectual capacity and compassion will be assets in the field of psychology.”

In addition to his research projects, Merline has held three student intern positions on campus, two through the Human Development Center and one with the Wisconsin Early Autism Project working as a social and emotional support staff intern at the Children’s Nature Academy child care facility of UW-Eau Claire. In all of these roles, Merline worked directly with young children and families.

Dr. Michael Axelrod, professor of psychology and director of the Human Development Center, says he has enjoyed the pleasure of both supervising Merline’s internship work and teaching him as an upper-level student in the major.

“Cameron is talented, hard-working and dedicated to helping others,” Axelrod says. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in a role where he’s providing psychological services to families, teaching and supervising students and engaging in research. I’m excited to follow Cameron’s career.”

That career plan, according to Merline, may very well follow a path much like Axelrod’s.

“As I’ve pondered the options for graduate school and a career goal, Dr. Axelrod was someone I have greatly admired and I chose to consult for advice,” Merline says. “When he asked me what type of career I wanted in the field, I said, ‘I actually want a career just like yours.’”

Merline says it’s faculty members like Axelrod, those who have been open and honest about their own sometimes “zigzaggy” academic and career journeys that he finds the most inspiring.

“He always makes sure students know he’s available to talk, not just about classes but about life goals,” Merline says. “I wish I’d gotten to know him sooner.”

Prepared for all that comes next

Merline admits to being a planner, someone who likes to be a step ahead in getting things organized and executed, and that includes his plans for a bachelor’s degree and beyond.

“I’m graduating after 3½ years, which I think is due to very detailed planning of my course progression,” he says.

Merline was equally organized in getting his materials and references prepared for graduate school, and he is happy to say that he’s been accepted to the most competitive program on his list, the Ph.D. program in clinical psychology, with an emphasis in developmental psychology, at the University of Colorado Denver. He will begin his program in fall 2023.

As someone who tends to be a bit hard on himself, Merline says he’s relieved to have the process done but admits that “it was my first application and I’m not so sure I did the best job of aligning my stated research interests with the faculty mentors.”

But the proof is “in the pudding” so to speak; as an official Ph.D. candidate, he now admits he must have “done a decent job.”