For Kate Helmstetter ’18, a Center for Public Service Immersion Project trip to Morocco during junior year helped forge her passions and interests into a plan for meaningful research.
“Before the trip, I had all the pieces, but I hadn’t quite assembled them yet,” Helmstetter said. “I knew I wanted to do psychological research and I knew I was interested in prejudice in society, but I hadn’t really put those pieces together to realize that I should study Islamophobia.”
Prejudice can be implicit or explicit, Helmstetter explained. Implicit prejudice is the kind internalized by a person, without being visible to others. Explicit is visible.
Under certain circumstances individuals can fail to suppress implicit prejudices and instead try to justify them, resulting in explicit displays of prejudice. The key to understanding the escalation in prejudice from implicit to explicit lies in finding out what circumstances allow for that transformation.
During her trip to Morocco, Helmstetter stayed with a Muslim family in the capital city of Rabat. She frequently had deep, intellectual conversations about Islam, politics, society, and daily activities with her home stay family. She soon realized she had a lot in common with the family members.
“I went into the trip with a very open mind,” Helmstetter said. “When I came back home, I went from being able to have these conversations and seeing eye-to-eye with my home stay family, to seeing lots of Americans’ rhetoric surrounding Muslims, and realizing that not everyone saw Muslims with such an open mind.”
That’s when Helmstetter realized how she was going to combine all her seemingly disparate interests and passions: into research on Islamophobia.
For Helmstetter, the journey to studying aggression, prejudice, and Islamophobia began in an unlikely place.
During her first semester at Gettysburg, Helmstetter took Psychology 101 with Prof. Katherine Delaney, originally planning on using the class to fulfill a social sciences course requirement. It ended up being her favorite class that semester thanks to the interesting subject matter and Prof. Delaney’s animated teaching style. In the spring, she signed up for two more psychology classes before finally declaring a major in psychology.
“I didn’t end up doing anything I thought I wanted to do when I came to Gettysburg,” said Helmstetter, “but I’m very happy with where I am now.”
Helmstetter’s experience is not uncommon among Gettysburg students. Gettysburg’s commitment to a liberal arts education influences students to take courses outside of their usual interest areas, and many students find a new passion or change direction completely.
Since her pivot to psychology, Helmstetter has worked with Prof. Christopher Barlett in the Aggression Research Lab, studying what social and personality factors promote and prevent aggressive behavior. Thanks to this research and Prof. Barlett’s mentorship, Helmstetter has published four papers in psychology journals, presented at four different research conferences, and completed a summer research fellowship.
Helmstetter’s true passion, however, has been exploring predictors of Islamophobia, with the goal of helping to reduce prejudice outside the research lab.
“Hopefully, scientists can eventually work hand-in-hand with legislators to create policy that will protect people,” said Helmstetter, who serves as a Leadership Mentor on campus through the Garthwait Leadership Center. “If you can understand what might lead to the expression of prejudice, you can find ways to reduce that prejudice.”
Helmstetter’s research involves asking participants to take part in a hypothetical hiring board for a Department of Justice Paralegal Specialist. Participants are given two candidates, one Muslim candidate with an Arabic name who previously taught a Quranic studies class and another non-Muslim candidate with a European name who previously taught a Biblical studies class. Then, they are asked to evaluate each candidate. When the hypothetical hiring board chooses the non-Muslim candidate, participants are asked to justify the decision.
The goal is to expose how implicit biases and Muslim stereotypes create tension that allows for individuals to display more explicit Islamophobic prejudices, specifically considering how threat perception can be used to justify these prejudices.
Islamophobia is usually studied through a political or policy lens, but rarely from a psychologist’s perspective. Helmstetter’s experiences while at Gettysburg have helped her build the skills necessary to bring those two perspectives together.
Prior to starting her research, Helmstetter had taken several courses that provided important background for her later work, including Interdisciplinary Studies 252: “Youth and New Media in the Middle East” and Anthropology 218: “Islam and Women.” The confluence of these various disciplines and ways of studying Islamic culture helped Helmstetter gain important new perspectives on her research, each informing her analysis in unique ways.
Now, Helmstetter is finishing her honors thesis on Islamophobia and hopes to continue and expand her research in graduate school. Looking to the future, Helmstetter hopes to inspire the next generation of psychologists.
“I would love to become a professor and a researcher,” Helmstetter said. “I’ve been so inspired by the amazing faculty at Gettysburg, that I can think of nothing better.”