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Monica Nelson ’15: Doing What She Loves at Autism Charlotte

Monica Nelson '15In her college career as a psychology major and student employee, and now in her first job after college, Monica Nelson '15 has melded her penchant for detail and precise data with analytics, web design and a passion for the liberal arts.

The result for the first-generation college student from Castle Hayne, North Carolina: goals met, and new goals set.

That's not as simple as it sounds in 2015, as President Carol Quillen is quick to note.

"Davidson seniors are applying for jobs that in many cases did not exist when they first arrived on campus," Quillen said at a recent convocation.

Case in point: Nelson has worked at Autism Charlotte since early 2015, in a position newly created to help manage the organization's initiatives in the burgeoning field of data collection and analytics. Nelson loves her job at Autism Charlotte, which supports families through inclusive programming for people with autism.

Her work routinely includes not just oversight of data itself, but leadership in developing the methodologies for dealing with all of it meaningfully. Her innovative approaches to project evaluation timelines, for example, have quickly made her a "go-to" member of the organization.

Doing Good by Doing Well

"Psychology just fit me really well," said Nelson, recalling her choice of Davidson major. "Once I accepted that I was just going to do something I loved, that's when I decided to be a psychology major."

She recalled feeling the same way about discovering Davidson, during the application process and especially when she visited campus.

"It was just a perfect fit for me, especially with the Honor Code," said Nelson. "I just loved the environment, and I knew it was going to be rigorous. I had taken lots of advanced placement classes."

At Davidson, she took a wide variety of classes, including Music Technology (a physics class); Language as Social Action; Protestant & Catholic Ethics; Ethics in Professional Life; Renaissance Art in Northern Europe; Opera: Mozart to Debussy; and classes in comparative politics, health economics, history... and, of course "many psych classes."

Psychology presented itself as the choice for her during her sophomore year, when she took a cognitive psychology course with Professor of Psychology Kristi Multhaup and an organizational psychology course with Professor of Psychology John Kello.

Nelson's major thesis, which she is currently preparing for submission to the Journal of Experimental Psychology, is titled, "Are Odor-Evoked Memories Retrieved Directly While Other Modality-Cued Memories Are Retrieved Generatively?"

Nelson's skills also found an outlet and further refinement in a campus summer job. She worked in E.H. Little Library with Systems Librarian Susan Kerr on transcribing, organizing, correcting and otherwise preparing a wide variety of information for posting to the web. She made quite an impression on Kerr.

"She dealt with it all very quickly and proved herself really capable," said Kerr. "We moved on to Archives, and that's where the fun was!"

That work involved computer transcription of images and metadata from the library's image server to a new iteration of a historic postcards page.

In another project, Nelson also worked with student-generated content from an English class. First, she served as an editor on the students' literal transcriptions and annotations of 19th-century student letters home. Then she brought her digital editing and production skills to bear on computer transcription, Wordpress formatting and HTML coding on the Archives and Special Collections College History page.

As graduation neared, Professor Multhaup, who took an active interest in Nelson's Davidson career from the start, brought that interest forward to her student's professional career. Multhaup recommended her for the position at Autism Charlotte, which has an ongoing academic relationship with Davidson.

Real World, Academic Credit

Through a practicum class in the Davidson Psychology Department, a partner in Autism Charlotte's university program, some five to 10 students per semester are paired with a child diagnosed with autism. Students work in both home and school contexts with the child, providing continuity between the two locations. In addition, Autism Charlotte has supported Davidson College thesis student research by helping to distribute surveys to parents of kids with autism for Mel Geigirich's '15 thesis and facilitating access to kids in the AC after school program for Catherine (Katie) Stephan's '15 thesis, said Multhaup.

The relationship is beneficial for both parties.

"We do this because we love our relationship with Davidson," said Isabel Owen, executive director of Autism Charlotte. To date, more than 50 Davidson students have participated in the practicum for academic credit.

In her full-time, post-grad job at Autism Charlotte, Nelson stays busy with the donor management system, a newly created grant database, and writing and editing grant proposals. She not only organizes but volunteers in programming events, too, for instance as a raffle volunteer at the Ales for Autism event of Autism Advocates young professionals group at Noda Brewing Co.

She recently started participating as a site volunteer with the organization's afterschool program. Working directly with autism clients is the most rewarding reason for the mission, she noted. Davidson students learn it in their practicum work, and Nelson herself learned it in the Autism Charlotte "I Can Bike" summer camp.

"It's really life-changing to see the joy on the child's face and in the parents when they learn to ride a bike," she said.

Life doesn't get any more detail-oriented and goal-driven than that.