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Purdue Graduate School News

August 24, 2021

Summer graduate diversity programs make a virtual splash

Brian Lewis, a rising junior studying psychology at Xavier University, wants to be a clinical psychologist. He has always been interested in conducting independent research, and though both his mother and sister have graduate degrees, he had many questions about graduate school and had never heard of a diversity statement—a type of personal essay that is growing in popularity for college admissions.

Brian Lewis

Brian Lewis plans to enroll in graduate school and major in clinical psychology. As a participant in Purdue’s Summer Opportunities Research Program, he was most impacted by the mentoring he received from a faculty member in his area of interest and current Purdue graduate students. (Photo provided)

Jenisis Moreland started a master’s program in agricultural economics at Purdue University in the fall of 2021. Due to complications arising from the global pandemic, she wound up taking a gap year after earning her bachelor’s degree. She was worried about transitioning to graduate school after the long break and battled imposter syndrome.

A sense of uncertainty. Fear of exposure. Doubts about belonging. Insecurities about one’s preparedness for graduate school. These are among the realities for many underrepresented students who are entering or soon to enter the graduate school pipeline.

These and many other challenges of underrepresented students seeking to enter the academy are reflected in national statistics. An October 2020 report by the Council of Graduate Schools showed that while there has been an overall increase in enrollment of underrepresented minority students in graduate school, students from minority demographic groups, including Latinx, Black/African American, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native, remain substantially underrepresented in the graduate student population.

Among first-time U.S. citizens and permanent resident graduate students in Fall 2019, 25% were underrepresented minorities.

Driven by factors spanning the individual to the national, the Office of Graduate Diversity Initiatives (OGDI) at the Purdue University Graduate School offers programs that foster the readiness and competitiveness of students from diverse backgrounds as they prepare for and navigate through graduate school.

Both Lewis and Moreland participated in the Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP) and the Graduate Bridge Program, respectively, two of several programs offered by the OGDI that are dedicated to recruitment and retention of underrepresented minorities pursuing graduate study and research careers.

SROP helps prepare underrepresented students for graduate school through a six-week intensive dive into the graduate school experience. Students partner with a faculty member on a research project and participate in professional development, peer mentoring, and social activities.

Julius Eason (PhD ’21), manager of the OGDI, said that while SROP participants are high-ability students, many have not been exposed to certain concepts or skills that they need to succeed in graduate school, such as how to write a diversity statement, how to get funding, or how to conduct a literature search. SROP is designed to fill in the gaps and provide a safe space where students can learn about graduate school without feeling judged for what they might not know. Over 500 students have participated in the Graduate School’s SROP program since its inception.

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 starts the summer prior to the first year of graduate school and helps acclimate incoming graduate students to Purdue’s campus while fostering a peer network.

The Bridge 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.

In the summer of 2021, 43 students participated in SROP and 23 students comprised the Bridge Program cohort.

Because of the pandemic, both of these programs were conducted virtually, with some surprise benefits. The virtual format supported a growth in the program content, including more professional development and social activities for both programs compared to previous years.

In addition, SROP and Bridge Program participants attended some activities together, providing an opportunity for sharing and networking between the two groups.

“One of the big outcomes that I learned about virtual is that we can adapt these in-person experiences to a virtual format,” Eason said. “I think it was a success. The students got more information than they thought they were going to get, and we had 90-100% participation across both SROP and Bridge. At every meeting they showed up with questions in hand, and they always had something to say about the topic.”

New this year and one of the highlights of both programs, according to Eason, was a four-part Inclusive Leadership Series with an emphasis on topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The series provided a safe environment where students could express themselves, be heard, and build on their knowledge and experience of diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.

SROP Inclusive Leadership Development Series

The 2021 Office of Graduate Diversity Initiatives summer program students participated in a four-part virtual Inclusive Leadership Series with an emphasis on topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. (Photo provided)

“A lot of people don’t want to talk about systemic issues. We just try to sweep it under the rug,” Eason said. “This series gave students the opportunity to say, this is what’s happening in the real world. This is what’s happening in higher ed.”

While the sessions were facilitated, the conversations were led by the students and focused on what they wanted to talk about.

“This was an introduction on how to make yourself and your peers feel included, develop a sense of belonging, and stay engaged. At the end of the day, we want them to be engaged in these topics and to think about the contribution they can make to the conversation,” Eason said.

Lewis participated in SROP because he wanted to experience a research project outside of Xavier, meet new people, and get a feel for another university.

Lewis is interested in forensic psychology and participated in a research project with David Rollock, 150th Anniversary Professor and Department Head of Psychological Sciences, that examined coping mechanisms among black faculty at predominantly white institutions.

“We had a really good relationship,” Lewis said of his faculty mentor. “Even though this was a research program, when we met I got to ask questions I had about grad school in general, about the Purdue program, about a PhD in clinical psychology…we talked through pretty much anything in terms of the whole realm of graduate school.”

Lewis also cited the SROP graduate peer mentors for providing help on specific topics, such as developing a diversity statement. “That was one of the few things that I never heard of,” Lewis said. “I would say out of the whole program, that might be one of the biggest takebacks was how much I got from that statement.”

While there is hope that SROP participants will choose to apply to Purdue after they complete their undergraduate degree, Eason said that the ultimate goal is that they succeed wherever they choose to go.

“I think it was an awesome opportunity to give to our students that they will forever cherish because we just want them to excel in their future endeavors,” Eason said.

Moreland has her sights set on earning a PhD and becoming a professor. She is studying how an increase in minimum wage affects food security under Bhagyashree Katare, assistant professor in agricultural economics at Purdue.

Jenisis Moreland

Jenisis Moreland, a first-year master’s student in agricultural economics at Purdue, said that participating in the Bridge Program helped her transition to graduate school after a pandemic-driven gap year, establish a peer group of friends, and overcome imposter syndrome. (Photo provided)

Moreland’s graduate advisor recommended that she apply for the Bridge Program to help her transition into graduate school after a gap year.

“It has been a great experience because I've been able to manage my time and get back into things. During that whole year that I took off, I wasn't really doing anything school-related. Now everything is school-related,” Moreland said.

She also cited the presentations, such as time management, how to conduct a literature review, and how to conduct research, as being helpful. A presentation on imposter syndrome by Linda Mason, dean of the graduate school and professor of entomology, was particularly meaningful and helped her find her “why”.

“Before, I think I had a little imposter syndrome,” Moreland said. “Everybody around me was asking, ‘Why are you getting your master’s? What’s the point of you going back to school?’ I was questioning myself. With this Bridge Program, I found a little bit more understanding and more confidence in continuing with the master’s program.”

The Bridge Program’s social activities gave Moreland, a self-described “very social person,” a chance to socialize with peers and form friendships.

“Without the Bridge Program I would not have been as prepared going into grad school,” Moreland said. “With the information and resources that they gave us and the bonds that I'm creating with my peers who are also in this program, it has been great. It really is very helpful.”

Eason said that fostering a sense of belonging and availability of support are keys to success for program participants.

“It’s not just getting them here. We need to make sure that they feel supported throughout the degree completion.” Eason said. “It’s a weary journey through graduate school. There are ups and downs. They have to feel that sense of belonging here at Purdue. We also have to make sure they have those necessary checkpoints along the way to make sure they are succeeding and meeting the expectations of excellence here at Purdue.”

To facilitate those checkpoints, OGDI is planning an extension of the Bridge Program through degree of completion. Students who did not participate in the Bridge Program the summer before graduate school will still be able to participate in the extended Bridge Program. More information will be forthcoming.

In addition to SROP and Bridge Program, the OGDI’s Graduate Diversity Visitation Program (GDVP) and the Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) round out the suite of major programs that provide support to underrepresented students throughout their graduate career.

Writer: Korina Wilbert, kwilbert@purdue.edu

Source: Julius Eason, eason2@purdue.edu

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