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An Open Letter to Administrators and Faculty

Peering in from the sidelines of academia, I've noticed a few things. The goal of many administrators and department heads is to somehow, someway, quietly increase the number of underrepresented minorities (URM) in science and engineering (S&E) disciplines. This must be accomplished without seeming to favor them, for fear of litigation. Then, once you have them in your department, it would be nice, though it's not essential, if they were to graduate.

While some campuses have made a Herculean effort and have achieved moderate to excellent results, many others have done little besides post a few flyers and create a new program or two; yet they expect wonders. It's just not going to happen. As a lowly 4th-year graduate student (See Educated Woman: Chapter 31), might I offer a few comments?

Thanks for All of Your Effort

Before I begin, I'd like to give a big heartfelt THANK YOU to the faculty, staff, and administrators that are supporting, recruiting, and retaining graduate students in all fields. Your work is to be commended, and if no one told you yet, it is greatly appreciated by those of us entrenched in graduate school. Thank you for believing in us and thank you for taking time for us.

Good Intentions? Please Refrain From Lip Service

Now, let's be honest. Students can smell a lukewarm effort from faculty and administration. Bringing students on campus, parading them around, and hoping that they will apply--knowing very well that many of them aren't interested in or prepared for your programs--is a waste of school money, and of time for all parties involved. Recruiting weekends can be effective tools to get students into departments, but they have to be well-orchestrated to achieve results. And once you get them in, there is the issue of getting them back out again, the right way.

If you, as an administrator, know that students from a particular region just won't come to your school because it's too far away (be it 200 or 2000 miles), then accept that as a reality and look closer to home. Until students have been exposed to (1) the research that goes on at your institution, (2) the faculty that do that research, and (3) other students who are enjoying (at least 50% of the time) their experience at your school, it's going to be hard to get them to come. Geographical distance seems to be a factor inhibiting effective recruitment and retention of URM students, especially when the students see they may be the only URM for miles around. Which leads me to my next point . . .

Critical Mass: My Favorite Concept

And then there's that critical mass thing. I can't tell you how frustrating it has been to be the only African-American minority woman in my department -- same song, different decade. What is sad is that while the number of minority students in college has increased over the last few decades, the number attaining S&E doctorates is still only a little less anemic in 2001 than it was about 30 years prior. In 1970, 3.1% of URM gained S&E degrees compared with 8.8% in 2001. 1

I'm outgoing enough to have found others like me in other departments and at conferences. Other people, especially those in science that have learned to be little hermits, need a little outside stimulus. There's just something about having a community of people that share similar experiences.

How Connected Is Your Campus?

Effective campus-wide support, via offices with well-planned and -advertised activities, is essential. Do such offices exist at your university? Do undergraduate and graduate students know they exist? Do they know how you--administrators--can help them, as a financial resource? A conflict-resolving resource? A general-advising resource? What efforts have been made to engage the students at your university in event planning? And when they decide to plan an event on their own, how supportive is your university in financing, advertising, and providing space for that event?

Do you know who all the URM students are? When there are so few URM students it's easy for us to get lost in the crowd of a campus, but there is real, if intangible, value in having someone in administration know who you are and care how you're doing. Having a kind face to rant to about how things aren't going right, or someone to share joy with when everything has gone well, provides a little piece of home away from home.

Are current students (grad and undergrad) in S&E aware of one another? If there is an office that deals in minority affairs, have all of the graduate students been identified and contacted by phone? A human voice, instead of an e-mail, is a nice change of pace. The following suggestions will work. "Hello, stop by and see us," or "come to our opening reception." "This is how you can get involved on campus, and these are what resources are available to you." It cannot be assumed that the graduate students will find all of these things on their own.

Departmental orientations can leave a lot to be desired. Here's the building. Here are your keys. This is where you'll live for the next 4 to 7 years. Good luck.

Just knowing where to get a good cup of coffee, or go to church, or get your hair cut can make a general orientation much more useful and welcoming. It's hard enough to get adjusted to being in graduate school; learning how to live in a new place, when there's no one in your department with the same needs, can be time consuming and sometimes stressful.

Good Mentors Are Hard to Find

Are faculty members given the time to be good mentors? Finding mentors for students that will encourage them to interact with the community and find other students to bring into the lab is quite a task. I've gotten over thinking that my mentor has to look like me; I let that go a long time ago. I know that a mentor has to be someone that is interested in my ultimate success. Find out from your students which faculty have been effective mentors, and point them out to your new students, lest they be stuck and frustrated with close-minded faculty members with no interest in their development as a scientist and as a human being.

Are faculty members that have proven on more than one occasion that they are not sensitive to the needs of their students, whether they are minority or not, kept away from promising students? We need mentors that don't see a degree from a Minority Serving Institution (MSI) as a liability. As a minority woman who didn't attend a MSI, I still have to wreck preconceived notions to get the respect that I try to give to others.

However, I've noticed something about students from MSI's that have made it to graduate school. First, there's a whole lot more of them than there are students that went to majority institutions. Second, they've often been mentored far more effectively than those of us that went to majority institutions. Although these students may not have had access to the same resources that a majority institution may have, these students, just like students from majority institutions, arrive with a working brain and a curiosity for research and science. Mentors and advisors that recognize this are far better off than those trying to second guess what their students know. Try not to destroy relationships with your notions of what a student should or should not be based on where they came from.

Helping the Students in Your Own Backyard

How involved are the minority undergraduate students on your campus? Getting them involved with good mentors and exciting research early can turn lukewarm S&E students into excited students. Those who are excited about research make great graduate students. There should be a community of scientists that includes undergrads, grads, and professors, working together to feed the pipeline.

What about the community college and high school students that show a high aptitude for research? Are there programs in your schools that will reach out to these students to allow them research opportunities in labs where they will be well mentored?

We Want to Improve the Situation Too!

Recognize that your students are there to get a degree, first and foremost, but realize that they can contribute to your community. Encouraging that contribution with effective support can create an environment where other students will want to pursue a Ph.D. Time and resources are valuable on both sides of the fence. Students, faculty, and administrators working together for a common good, though it might be tough at first, is a worthy and, I believe, attainable goal.

Comments, questions, and scrutiny can be sent to Micella at

1 National Science Foundation report: Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, 2004

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