Behind the Awards: How Four GEM Fellows Made the Transition to Graduate School

What do science and engineering (S&E) undergraduates of color need to know as they prepare to make the transition to graduate school? Who better to tell them than fellowship recipients from the Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science (GEM) program?

With their academic credentials and prestigious fellowship funding, the futures of GEM fellows seem bright. But they are not immune to the pitfalls that come with the quest for a Ph.D. They too must cope with issues that are common to graduate students of color in S&E. In this article, the GEM Fellows featured in "A GEM of a Program," talk about how they transitioned into graduate school.

Bright Lights, Big University

A disproportionate number of students of color in S&E attend small undergraduate schools, often minority-serving institutions. Zakiah Robinson is one. She was aware that making the jump from tiny, historically black Tuskegee University to the huge, predominantly white University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wouldn't be easy, but she did it without hesitation and she made it work. "This is how it's going to be," she says. "So I jumped in feet first."

To ease the transition, Robinson advises others to do what she did--internships, research--and to network with people before entering graduate school. It's also very important to feel comfortable with a program before entering, so students should ask other students questions about the advisor and lab during campus visits. After enrolling and joining a lab, students should choose appropriate course work, in consultation with the new advisor.


Although she didn't do research at Tuskegee, she participated in summer research as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan's Department of Mechanical Engineering. That experience, together with working for a year after graduation at Westinghouse, provided a solid foundation for her future research work.

Renewing and Refocusing

With a bachelor's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master's from Northeastern University, Reginald Rogers, Jr., was accustomed to the fast pace of research he found at the University of Michigan's Department of Chemical Engineering. "I had been in the graduate school mode already," he says, "so it wasn't hard at all."

The difficulty for Rogers had little to do with school. "I had been moving around a lot, so I wanted to find a place where I could be comfortable going to school and also being able to live my life," Rogers reflects. "Many people say that grad school is about giving up your life. I disagree. Grad school is [only] part of a person's life."

Rogers gained this perspective on life from an incident that happened a few years ago. He suffered extensive injuries from an automobile accident on Interstate-75 in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, and was pronounced dead on June 18, 1999, but doctors revived him. He remained in a coma for three days. When he awoke he had no memory of the accident and still doesn't. Now, more than ever, God, family, and friends are an intimate part Rogers's life.

When Class is the Least of Your Worries

Many graduate students aren't responsible only for their own well being; they also have families to take care of. "The move was tough the first year," says Ciro Lopez, "in terms of getting back to the school atmosphere, going through cumulative exams, going through all the hurdles you have to go through in the beginning, and then dealing with the birth of a child."


The son of Colombian immigrants and now a father to three children of his own, Lopez struggled to balance the cyclical pattern of classes, exams, orals, and research with family time, especially the first semester. "I would go to school during the day, come home in the evening, eat some dinner, put the kids to bed, and then come back to school at night. And then do the same thing the next day." Lopez recently earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researching microelectronics and materials science.

Initially, Lopez was unsure if graduate school was right for him. But supporters, including his undergraduate principal investigator at Florida State University (where he also worked two years after graduating), encouraged him to pursue graduate studies. He concluded that getting an advanced degree would help him provide for his family over the long term.

Reflecting on his previous reluctance to pursue a Ph.D., Lopez suggests that, while his reluctance was justified in some ways, he probably made the right decision. "You'll never be prepared enough." Lopez continues, "At one point in time in your grad career you will wonder: Did I make the right choice in coming here?" Those feelings are sometimes amplified in students of color, who often are isolated from their peer community.

Adapt and Overcome

Buying a one-way ticket to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, Franklin Alexander Carrero-Martinez realized that things would be different there than at the University of Puerto Rico. The biggest issue for him during his first year in graduate school was feeling comfortable speaking and writing English, though as time went on, his fluency increased quickly.


Carrero-Martinez--a neuroscientist--is currently the only Puerto Rican in his department; indeed, for several years he has been the only minority there. Yet he knew that to succeed in science he needed to interact with his colleagues. Though he sometimes feels isolated, he has found ways to cope. He attends parties and plays sports--often with members of the Puerto Rican student organization he helped start--as a social outlet.

"I think those distractions are the key to survival," he says. Carrero-Martinez and some friends also created a student organization as a support system for minority science students. He knows that finding a network of people is crucial, even if it is just to learn about the need to wear boots, gloves, and a scarf for harsh Midwestern winters. "We have been fortunate to have a couple of people in the administration [at the University of Illinois and at the National Institutes of Health] that are very supportive."

But Carrero-Martinez realizes that good intentions can also be inadvertently burdensome. He thinks schools don't do enough to protect the "few minorities that make it to graduate school or tenure-track positions." They are often asked to take on additional responsibilities, like diversity initiatives or recruitment, which can divert precious time away from doing research, writing papers, etc. "You must ask yourself if you really want to do this," Carrero-Martinez says. "This is not for everyone. You really need to have dedication and a lot of patience."


Sincerely yours, the GEM Club

Despite their different backgrounds, these four GEM students have dealt with the same issues--moving to larger schools, cultural isolation, unexpected crises, and family considerations--that most students of color face when transitioning into graduate school. Nevertheless, they all agree the journey is navigable. Or as Lopez says, "... the benefits of your getting an advanced degree [usually] outweigh present concerns."

Clinton Parks is a writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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