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The Graduate School’s Office of Graduate Diversity Initiatives offers programs to support the recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities pursuing graduate study and research careers. Pictured here is a group of students who participated in the Summer Research Opportunities Program.

May 20, 2021

Purdue Graduate School diversity programs transform lives

Shavonne Shorter (MA ’10, PhD ’14) didn’t know yet where Purdue was when she got accepted into the Graduate School’s Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP). But, in 2007, she boarded a flight and came to West Lafayette to participate in the six-week program that gives underrepresented students a taste of graduate school.

“SROP changed my life,” Shorter said. Today, she is an associate professor of communication studies and the special assistant to the president for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Bloomsburg University, and she credits SROP for launching her on a path that led to her landing her dream job. SROP is one of several programs in the Graduate School’s Office of Graduate Diversity Initiatives (OGDI) dedicated to recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities pursuing graduate study and research careers. The Graduate Bridge Program, Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), and the Graduate Diversity Visitation Program (GDVP) round out a suite of major programs that provide support to underrepresented students at various stages of their graduate career.

Overlooking 2020, when many events were canceled or moved online due to the pandemic, participation of these programs was steadily growing—and the impact was measurable.

From fall 2019 to fall 2020, the number of underrepresented minority graduate students at Purdue grew 21 percent.

But, perhaps the greatest measure of impact comes from the testimonials of participants whose lives were changed by these programs.

Summer program changes a life

Shavonne Shorter

Shavonne Shorter (MA ’10, PhD ’14) participated in the Graduate School’s Summer Research Opportunities Program in 2007.

 

“It was so exciting,” said Shorter of her SROP summer filled with research, professional development workshops, GRE practice, independent living, organized weekend excursions, and getting to know her fellow SROP cohort members—many of whom she is still in touch with 14 years later.

“We had a level of independence that many of us had never had before. And in addition to developing a love for research, we made lifelong friendships,” Shorter said.

Participants come from all over the country to Purdue’s SROP for a crash course on graduate school. Key to the experience is the opportunity to partner with a faculty member on a research project. Shorter was paired with Stacey Connaughton, a professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication, and studied how the 2008 presidential candidates were speaking about race and trying to connect with voters.

“It was a wonderful research experience to be able to learn from her,” Shorter said of Connaughton, who ultimately became her faculty advisor. The study Shorter contributed to became a paper, and Shorter got a co-author credit. Two years later, when she was just a first-year graduate student, that research was presented at a professional conference.

“It was so exciting to have that opportunity. I was an undergraduate student, and my advisor thought enough of me to want to work with me and put together a conference presentation. It was something that I never thought that I would be able to do. I’ll be grateful to her for the rest of my life,” Shorter said.

Julius Eason (MS ’14, PhD ’21), manager of the Office of Graduate Diversity Initiatives in the Graduate School at Purdue University, said that while SROP participants are high-ability students, many have not yet been exposed to concepts or skills that they need to succeed in graduate school, such as how to get funding, write a competitive research statement, or conduct a literature search.

Julius Eason

When Julius Eason (MS ’14, PhD ’21) was a PhD student, he volunteered as a research and peer mentor for students participating in the Graduate School’s diversity programs and discovered his passion for helping students succeed. Today, he is manager of the Graduate School’s Office of Graduate Diversity Initiatives.

 

“A student came to me and said he didn’t know how to look up an article,” Eason said. “Sometimes students feel bad for not knowing, and they don’t want to risk the exposure. Our programs provide a safe space to ask any question.”

For Shorter, SROP ultimately helped her identify her passions and set her up for career success.

“A program like this made all the difference. Many of us didn’t have access to the things that would best prepare us for graduate school. When I think about where I am today, SROP laid that foundation.”

Shorter loved the SROP program so much that a few years later she signed up to be an SROP mentor working with students in the same program she went through, checking on their progress, answering questions, and working as “an older cousin figure.”

“I had a chance to do the things for them that were done for me,” Shorter said. “Really it came full circle. These experiences showed me that this is the kind of work I wanted to do.”

In 2021, Eason added to the program a four-part Inclusive Leadership Series with an emphasis on topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“The series will provide a safe environment where students can express themselves, be heard, and build on their knowledge and experience of diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. I think this is going to be the highlight of the program this year, and we are very excited to have it,” Eason said.

After being canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, SROP will be virtual this year, but participation is at pre-pandemic levels.

The 2021 SROP cohort will include 43 students, including 12 students from the University of New Mexico who will participate in Purdue’s SROP virtual professional development opportunities, mentoring, and social components, but will conduct the research component at the University New Mexico.

Also in the 2021 Purdue SROP cohort are seven Mellon-funded Graduate School Exploration Fellowship recipients—often first-generation underrepresented minority students.

Mentor’s introduction opens doors

While SROP is for undergraduate students who have not yet committed to a graduate institution, OGDI’s Graduate Bridge Program is designed to support incoming Purdue underrepresented graduate students. The six-week program taken the summer prior to their first year of graduate school helps acclimate incoming graduate students to Purdue’s campus while fostering a peer network.

The Bridge Program is an intimate, high-impact program. Current 2021 enrollment, still open at the time of this publication, is at 19 students with more expected before the enrollment portal closes. The program offers a series of professional development workshops to help students get acquainted with Purdue resources and develop skills and knowledge to support their academic and research success.

“Grad School is intense,” Eason said. “As grad school evolves you become more isolated because you get so focused on what you are here for. The Bridge Program gives students the opportunity to foster a community, identify Purdue resources, as well as feel a sense of belonging.”

Marian Rodriguez Soto (MS ’21), a regional urban soil health specialist for the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, participated in the program the summer of 2018 before she started a master’s program in entomology at Purdue.

Marian Rodriquez Soto

Marian Rodriquez Soto (MS ’21) participated in the Graduate School’s Bridge Program.

 

“The Bridge Program opened the door to graduate school,” Soto said. “I started working in experiments, getting to know the department, meeting my peers, and building relationships with my advisors…I built friendships with my peers that served as a support system during my time at Purdue. Knowing resources on campus, getting an early research start, and developing my support system helped me prepare for a successful graduate school path.”

Before she came to Purdue as a graduate student, Soto participated in SROP, and was mentored by Eason. During SROP, Eason introduced Soto to faculty members in the program, one of whom eventually became her advisor.

“I was still an undergraduate student, and the exercise of meeting faculty helped me secure funding for the future. When I applied to graduate school, I had built relationships with the faculty, and thus I was able to get a position in my lab,” Soto said. “I am grateful for this initiative and the role the Office of Graduate Diversity Initiatives played in my success in graduate school. They provided strong support for me in my time at Purdue.”

Environment of inclusion battles imposter syndrome

Shalamar Armstrong, an associate professor of agronomy at Purdue, is an alumnus of the Graduate School’s AGEP program.

Shalamar Armstrong

Shalamar Armstrong, an associate professor of agronomy at Purdue, found support battling imposter syndrome while participating in the Graduate School’s Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate program.

 

AGEP is designed to increase the number of domestic students, especially from underrepresented population groups, who receive doctoral degrees and become faculty members in fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The program offers a series of personal and professional development workshops, mentoring, and outreach activities to help prepare students for successful entry into the professoriate.

On average, students come into the program early to midway through graduate school and may stay in the program for five years. In 2019, 29 students participated in AGEP at Purdue.

“AGEP provided an environment of inclusion that was desperately needed while battling the feeling of being an imposter in a 98% white Agronomy Department at Purdue University,” Armstrong said. “Beyond exposing me to other African American doctoral students in STEAM disciplines on campus, the program equipped me with transferable skills for surviving and excelling in my doctoral research program.”

One of the most transformational experiences Armstrong had in AGEP was attending the COMPACT conference.

“I was one African American STEAM doctoral student of hundreds in one place, at one time, with one purpose and one specific design, which was to equip me and all like me to disrupt the academic, governmental, and industry job markets with excellence,” Armstrong said. The conference enabled him to network with African American scientists of all career levels and learn key skills in interviewing, document preparation, and salary and start-up package negotiations.

“The totality of AGEP left me with the mental toughness and augmented my rigorous academic preparation with a unique and polished skillset that prepared me for a fruitful, rewarding, and sustainable career as a professor in Soil Science and Agronomy,” Armstrong said.

Diversity programs slated for growth

SROP, the Graduate Bridge Program, AGEP and the Graduate Diversity Visitation Program (GDVP)—a four-day program that brings undergraduate students to Purdue for academic unit visits, professional development, networking, and tours—are proven models for impactful, life-changing support to traditionally underserved populations.

Plans for the Office of Graduate Diversity Initiatives include growth for all of the programs, both in the size of the cohort as well as the suite of programs offered.

Writer: Korina Wilbert, kwilbert@purdue.edu

Source: Julius Eason, eason2@purdue.edu

 

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