Beloved psychology professor Sarina Saturn leaves UP

Saturn was an advocate for the marginalized

By William Seekamp | February 1, 2022 10:05pm
Sarina Saturn speaking at the intersectional justice display on Jan. 28. Saturn's last day at UP was Jan. 31.
Media Credit: Ryan Reynolds / The Beacon

Few can say they are more connected to The Bluff than associate professor of psychological sciences Sarina Saturn. 

Her parents — both UP alums — met in UP’s International Club and Saturn grew up in University Park, making regular visits to campus. Years later, she found herself back at UP as a professor, and over the last seven years, she’s become involved with numerous clubs, groups and steering committees.

“It's been a true honor to provide intersectional emotional care and to recognize how people here on campus, especially students, need more spaces where they feel welcome and affirmed, and they can provide some processing and healing,” Saturn said. “And so that has been really gratifying.”

In spite of this, Saturn never felt like she fully belonged at UP, which is why her decision to leave UP at the end of January was so difficult for her.

“I think the one reason I've resonated so much with students is that I've seen how harmful it can be to come into an environment where you don't feel like you belong,” Saturn said.

Saturn reports often feeling unheard when she brought issues to the administration about diversity, inclusion and mental health.

This decision came with heavy emotions — whether it’s grief, love, anger, liberation or anything in between.

Theology professor Simon Aihiokhai, who got to know Saturn when they served on the Presidential Advisory Committee for Inclusion and Ethnic Studies Search Committee, believes Saturn has changed the landscape of the University forever, helping to make it a more diverse, welcoming and inclusive place.

“They may not know her name, but legacy will always remember her,” Aihiokhai said. “She was one of those agents that brought about social transformation at this University.”

“She had the University, especially the College of Arts and Sciences, take seriously diversity training in the hiring of faculty members,” Aihiokhai added. “...That has yielded a lot of positive fruits in the less than two years since it started. We've had a good number of diverse faculty hired, which would never have been the case before.”

When Saturn first started as a professor at UP in 2015, she didn’t expect to do so much advocacy work, but she swiftly realized that her unique link to The Bluff, her experiences as a woman of color and her background in the psychology of emotions allowed her to quickly connect and empathize with many students. 

“I grew up in this culture and I know why students were suffering,” Saturn said. “I knew exactly what needed to change in order to provide more advocacy and affirmation and healing. And so it has been amazing, I think it's probably the highlight of my career to do this work with students.”

Saturn grew up a few blocks away from campus.
by Annika Gordon / The Beacon

This desire to make UP more equitable and inclusive rang clearly to the students she worked with as she connected quickly with many of the QTBIPOC and feminist students, faculty and staff.

Saturn served many roles for the students she worked closely with: a professor, adviser, friend, mentor and, when needed, a shoulder to cry on.

“Even though she is older and wiser than all of us, she never belittles you or makes you feel dumb or anything like that,” Students Against Sexual Assault (SASA) co-president Kristen Kaliban said. “She's just so collaborative, and I really have always loved and appreciated that about her because that's not always the case, especially with clubs that deal with more sensitive topics.”

When Active Minds President Kaylee Menefee joined the club’s Executive Board last year, she had one insight: “You’re going to love this, especially because Dr. Saturn is now your best friend.”

“And that’s really how it is, honestly,” Menefee said.

One of the biggest reasons Saturn was able to make such an impact was her ability to connect different sectors of campus with each other.

“The great thing about working with (Saturn) on one thing is that she's working on so many things at one time and every time she starts something new she asks, ‘Do you want to be involved with this?’” Menefee said.

“She's only the official adviser for two clubs on campus, but unofficially is the adviser for all of the diversity clubs,” Menefee continued. “She's the one that everyone goes to when they need help with funding requests or with reserving a room, anything really.”

Active Minds president Kaylee Menefee speaks to the gathered students at the intersectional justice display.
by Ryan Reynolds / The Beacon

As a colleague, Saturn’s zeal and passion rubbed off on those she worked with.

“I'm different as a result of my working with Sarina,” associate professor of philosophy Alejandro Santana said. “I hope I've had the same effect on her in that way. I'm a better person. I'm a much more thoughtful person.”

“I consider her a very respectable colleague, one who was genuine and authentic in making a difference, no matter how difficult those transformative differences demand of us, because it's not easy,” Aihiokhai added.

Saturn’s decision to leave UP stemmed from her realization that when she returns from sabbatical next year, it would not be to an environment where she felt respected and recognized, Saturn said.

Saturn, who earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from New York University, did postdoctoral work at Columbia University, Stanford University and the University of California – Berkeley. Her specialty is the neuroscience of emotions, and her research has been featured in publications including the New York Times, National Public Broadcasting’s (NPR’s) Science Friday and Scientific American Mind.

One of Saturn’s biggest disappointments at UP was that her proposals to teach classes in the neuroscience minor faced resistance, she said. 

Another discouraging setback was the flooding in the Buckley basement damaged her research on intergenerational trauma, healing and post-traumatic growth. Because the Buckley basement has a history of flooding, Saturn was dismayed that the University did not take steps to mitigate the problem.

Saturn also pointed out issues in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work on campus, which often fell on faculty, staff and students without full support by the administration, she said.

“It's just like this uphill battle,” Saturn said. “And I'm honestly just so exhausted from pushing these boulders uphill.”

Saturn is one of many female faculty and staff members to have left the institution in the last year, including several women of color.

“This is a unique case, but at the same time, it seems to speak to a pattern at UP of strong females occupying positions, whether they're staff or faculty or administration, and then they leave because they just get so fed up with how they're treated,” Santana said.

“To not feel as though you're not getting valued in that way, it hurts,” Santana added. “It's understandable why people would not want to be here anymore. So, I really think it's important for all of us to think about that very carefully and very deeply.”

Acting University President and Provost Herbert Medina declined to comment on Saturn’s departure, according to an email from Vice President for Marketing and Communications Michael Lewellen.

“Unfortunately, it is not customary for a university president or provost to comment on employee departures that are not retirements, nor departures precipitated by moves to leadership positions at other institutions,” Lewellen’s email said.

Simon Aihiokhai worries about who is going to fill the big shoes Saturn leaves behind.

by Jennifer Ng / The Beacon

Because Saturn, with her knowledge of UP, personal-connections with students and her background in the psychology of emotions, was uniquely positioned to help foster change on campus, Aihiokhai worries about who is going to fill the vacancy.

“Who is going to continue all these things she has been doing?” Aihiokhai said. “It is like somebody just died in front of you, that's how I felt about (her leaving).”

Senior Isaiah Saluta believes that Saturn's legacy forging connections between the different corners of UP working to create DEI change will be picked up and carried on by students.

“I hope students know that just because she's leaving doesn't mean that change isn’t still going to happen,” Saluta said. “Students will continue to fill that void and students will continue to build community and build networks of opportunities so that we can all raise each other up.”

“Let's hope,” Santana said. “There's a tremendous amount of inertia here and so it really takes someone really pushing, moving, cajoling, dragging, encouraging, I mean everything, all at the same time to reverse that inertia. And so the task now is upon everybody to help pick up the slack in that way. It's a really big loss.”

Students gather on the Academic Quad for an intersectional justice display and celebration.
by Ryan Reynolds / The Beacon

On Jan. 28, around 30 students, faculty and staff gathered in the academic quad to celebrate Saturn and the progress she has cultivated during her time at UP in addition to reaffirming that — even with Saturn leaving — the work and progress will not stop with her.

Although Saturn isn’t sure of what’s next, she is looking forward to catching up on rest, relaxation and recovery.

Despite all that Saturn faced, her time here was worth the challenges, she said. She hopes her actions and work at UP have helped shape and strengthen progress of the institution where her parents met.

“I have no regrets at all,” Saturn said. “It was completely worth it. It was a fight out of love and I think we have made some great strides here. I hope people realize that the fire can keep burning.”

William Seekamp is the News and Managing Editor of The Beacon. He can be reached at