As graduate students, it can feel as though we have little power to change institutional practices that would increase diversity in a meaningful way. However, my own experience has shown that current graduate students can take action to encourage their university to add or improve diversity initiatives. I wanted to take this blog post as an opportunity to highlight some successful initiatives being implemented by universities across the country and then to suggest some ways that we, as students, can help enact change. It is my hope that by sharing these ideas, they can be adopted in more places and further improved.
Many universities are beginning to recognize that an effective way to attract talented minority applicants is to simply make the effort to recruit at conferences and universities with many minority undergrads. Universities already send representatives to conferences, and by choosing to recruit at new places, they are able to diversify their applicant pool and make a PhD seem attainable.
In a similar vein, some universities have begun hosting diversity preview weekends for minority students. I know that such a weekend was key in my decision of where to go to undergrad; thus, I am hopeful that such programs will similarly help convince more minority students to pursue a graduate degree. Yale University recently started a pilot program of this sort after a couple of students decided to meet with the graduate school’s diversity office to suggest it. Many other universities are also looking for ways to increase diversity on campus and may similarly be open to such a program. If you are mentoring any minority undergrads, then I would highly encourage you to direct them to Científico Latino, which lists many more programs of this sort, including ones at Georgia Tech, Ohio State, and MIT.
One of the frequent comments I have received from administrators when trying to increase diversity and inclusion on campus has been that it is “impossible” to get faculty to do anything. Therefore, I am always incredibly inspired (and heartened) by programs that have successfully motivated faculty to support diversity initiatives. A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Sherilynn Black, the Associate Vice President of Faculty Development at Duke University, when she came to campus to speak about her success increasing the acceptance and inclusion of minority graduate students at Duke. (If you’d like to hear Dr. Black speak about persisting in STEM as a minority, then check out her inspiring talk from the 2016 SACNAS Conference.)
I was particularly impressed by her continual insistence that faculty members should be taking a larger role in creating a supportive environment for minority students and that the burden of diversity work should not be placed on the students themselves. This was particularly inspiring, as she has actually managed to increase faculty buy-in through “culturally-aware mentoring” workshops that faculty are required to attend if their graduate students are on certain grants.
These trainings are successful, in part, because they make faculty members aware of their own culture and background, and thus more accepting of where their student’s background might be different. Furthermore, they assume that most faculty members do want to be effective mentors and frame the trainings through this lens. Duke has also put together an extensive site devoted to mentoring, if you’d like to check out more resources on this topic.
Suggestions for making these a reality
If you’d like to increase minority graduate student recruitment and retention at your university, here are some tips from my own experiences to get you started.
- Collaborate with the other diversity groups on campus: As my mom used to say, “many hands make light work;” besides, many voices raised together are harder to ignore. To that end, my gradSWE section increases our reach by collaborating with other diversity groups. These groups have connections with administrators beyond the ones we normally interact with, who can help provide funding or institutional support for our ideas. Furthermore, these groups intimately know the problems facing their own members; together we can craft solutions that support all under-represented groups.
- Start at the department level: I have found it much easier to encourage faculty who I already have a relationship with to come to diversity events. Additionally, I have found that trainings at the department level can increase buy-in, particularly when the department chair is supportive of the events.
- Find sponsors and advocates: Finding the administrators or professors who care about these issues–and are willing to champion them–can make all the difference in turning your recruitment and retention ideas into reality. In addition to providing funding, they can also encourage their colleagues to support your initiatives and attend trainings.
- Don’t be afraid to ask: If you have ideas of how you can improve your department or school, schedule a meeting with administrators to share them. From my work on our university’s Title IX board, I learned that oftentimes, administrators don’t realize something is a problem for graduate students because no one has spoken up. Even if you are unsuccessful in pitching your idea, you may find some other program that you can help implement or lay the groundwork for the next person who makes a similar request.
- Don’t give up: While many schools profess a commitment to increasing diversity, it is an uphill battle to realize change. Administrators will often be unwilling to make large changes, but keep advocating for and supporting your fellow graduate students. Together, we will be able to realize more inclusive graduate programs.
I’ll end this blog post by inviting you to share with me any additional programs that you know of that have been successful in increasing the recruitment or retention of minority students. If you email these stories to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I would love to feature them in further blog posts. Whether it is something your university’s diversity office has implemented or a program run by your SWE section, please send it my way.