Maddy Fair (C ‘22) is exactly what comes to mind when you think of a psychology major. She is a mental health advocate, works at a text crisis hotline in her free time, and wants to be a therapist after school. However, Maddy has taken her passion for psychology beyond the pages of her textbook. Before completing her undergraduate career, Maddy has worked in several labs, marketed a mental health outreach app, and still managed to prioritize self–care.
For Maddy, her first–year psychology class at Penn was not just about taking notes and regurgitating information for exams. This requirement–filler helped Maddy find her place at Penn, one–in–a–lifetime opportunities, and aspirations for her future career in clinical psychology.
Maddy’s ruby red hair and blue eyes are impossible to miss. Upon nervously placing our names and messages to faces, we sat side by side on the benches outside of Van Pelt during a study break. Maddy is well established at Penn, saying hellos to familiar passersby leaving the library.
As a legacy student hailing from a Quaker–loving family, high–school Maddy couldn’t imagine herself attending college anywhere else. After applying in the early decision application process, Maddy was deferred and then accepted for regular decision … as a visual studies major.
“In high school, I was a huge art student,” says Maddy. “I would spend, like, half of my days in the art room either doing photography, painting, or drawing. I figured that when I came to Penn, there was this cool major that combines art and science, and I’d just do that.”
When Maddy realized art was a hobby and not a future career, she traded her canvases for case studies, pursuing a major in psychology with a minor in neuroscience. During her first semester, Maddy took “Introduction to Experimental Psychology” with professor Andrew H. Ward, who became “the reason [Maddy] majored in psych.”
At this point in our discussion, a swarm of bees surrounded us. Maddy continued to tell her story, raving about the early days of her psychology scholarship, shooing the insects with manicured hands.
After launching into a full roster of psych classes, Maddy watched her lecture notes and lists of diagnoses manifest all around her. At Penn, a prestigious academic institution with too few services for students struggling with mental health, Maddy knew she needed to make a change.
While scrolling Instagram during the early stages of the pandemic, Maddy came across Unmasked, an anonymous discussion–based app where students can post and respond to questions and comments about mental health. The app first launched at Dartmouth College in 2020, making its way to Penn when Maddy pitched her idea later that same year. “I figured that bringing an accessible, easy, literally at–your–fingertips option for mental health [support] would be really helpful for Penn students.”
After getting in touch with the executive team at Unmasked, Maddy got to work. She recruited a small team of Penn students to assist with the launch and to market the app. With the help of her team, Maddy created a tab on Penn’s Unmasked profile for school–based, state, and national mental health resources. Also, her colleagues marketed the app on social media and took shifts posting discussion boards and responding to unanswered questions in the app’s early stages.
“We saw a lot of downloads in the first few months of use,” Maddy says. “People were logging on and saying, ‘I’m really stressed about finals, how is everyone else feeling?’ or, ‘I’m feeling left out by my friends,’ or, ‘I didn’t get invited to formals and my friends did.’ It [became] a way for people to bond with each other about very similar situations without having to rely on a friend or worrying about burdening someone else.”
Apart from her impact of bringing Unmasked to Penn, Maddy spends much of her free time working as a research assistant for the University. “I have made my way through a bunch of different research labs at Penn,” says Maddy with a laugh. Her LinkedIn profile is a sight to see, showcasing her diverse research repertoire.
During her time at Penn, Maddy has worked in several labs as she searched for her psychology niche. Maddy was able to apply her coursework to professional settings, conducting research on everything from mental illness in teenagers to memory of mice.
“My first time I did research [at the Song/Ming Laboratory], I didn’t realize until I showed up on the first day that my research was on mice, where I had to give them injections.” That day, Maddy swore she’d never accept a future research position without confirming mice would not be involved.
After this unexpected encounter, a summer of researching through the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program, and a brief stint working on a internet–based invention for college students experiencing depression at the DeRubeis Lab, Maddy found herself at the Emotion, Development, Environment, & Neurogenetics (EDEN) Lab, where she currently works.
At the EDEN Lab, she had daily meetings with 5– to 6–year–olds experiencing conduct disorders and their caregivers. The study sought to see if a social skills board game would reduce conduct problems relative to a math board game or no game at all.
Maddy invested a year into this study, ultimately using her research to piece together her honors thesis. We took a moment to celebrate her submitting the paper the night before.
Since the start of her psychology academic career, Maddy wanted to be a therapist. We agreed that the idea of seeking mental health support as a college student is daunting and uncomfortable. Maddy will continue working to fight the stigma surrounding mental health that festers all around us: “Penn Face,” the inaccessibility of Counseling and Psychological Services at Penn, and the sheer amount of courage it takes to start the process to get help.
“So many people [at Penn] are struggling with mental health because a lot of students came from being the top of their class in high school,” says Maddy. “Then, you come to Penn and some people swim, but a lot of people sink, especially because it’s such an academically rigorous institution. But people really don’t like to share the fact that they’re struggling with [mental health].”
When I ask Maddy about her personal experiences with mental health, she tells me she is fortunate to not deal with debilitating mental health challenges. She credits her work in psychology in helping her to understand the complexities and implications of mental illness.
“I’ve always wanted to be a therapist, but it’s hard to be a therapist when you don’t know what it feels like. So to be able to really put myself in other people’s shoes through these experiences has been really impactful,” Maddy says.
As a proponent of mental health awareness, Maddy is a big fan of self–care. On a sunny day, you can find her crossing the South Street Bridge to her favorite spot in Philly, the dog park by the Schuylkill River. On lazier days, Maddy loves to read and binge stupid reality TV shows and “every baking show in the book.” Maddy proudly brags that she’s seen every episode of The Great British Baking Show.
After graduating, Maddy will work as a research coordinator for two years before applying to Ph.D. programs for clinical psychology. She plans to live in Center City and work in the West Philly area, making the trolley commute to her nostalgic college stomping grounds.
Though Maddy plans to spend the next year living in Philly, she mourns the ending of her time at Penn. She looks forward to picking up a veggie burger from Magic Carpet when she misses her undergrad years: Shabbat dinners with her Sigma Delta Tau sorority sisters, doodling flowers in the margins of her notebooks during class, and getting lost in a Colleen Hoover novel when she should be studying. Maddy will also hold onto her love of psychology that she discovered at Penn: the random class she decided to take, the driving force for her future career, and the gift that keeps on giving.