Programs break down barriers for underrepresented students
By Kris Gallagher
It’s an academic Catch-22: without mentors and role models with backgrounds similar to theirs to guide them, students who are immigrants, people of color or the first in their families to attend college are far less likely to pursue advanced degrees. Without advanced degrees, these students can’t go on to fill universities’ pressing need for diverse faculty to inspire future students. How do you break the cycle so that such students don’t feel as rare as unicorns?
“The landscape of doctoral programs across the nation is formed of people who are not first-generation and who are not from underrepresented backgrounds,” says Kevin Quin (CMN ’16), a PhD candidate in Africana studies at Cornell University. “You feel like an imposter sometimes because you don’t speak their language.”
“It was very draining to realize I was in the middle of my doctoral program and I was one of two students of color in a cohort of 14,” says Vanessa Cruz Nichols (LAS ’09), who received a PhD in political science from the University of Michigan in 2017.
The landscape is changing because of Quin, Cruz Nichols and other DePaul alumni and students in the university’s McNair Scholars program. Through this federally funded TRIO program, juniors and seniors from low-income, first-generation or underrepresented backgrounds are guided along the path to PhDs and academic careers. DePaul’s program is one of the best among the 150 universities that receive the grant; over the past five years, an average of 72 percent of its participants go on to graduate school.
Taking the initiative a step further, DePaul created the Arnold Mitchem Fellows program to prepare sophomores for research-based careers and the McNair program. Mitchem also serves juniors and seniors who fall outside of the McNair program’s narrow parameters, such as students pursuing a combined MD/PhD or an MFA.
“The story behind these programs is DePaul’s commitment to making the group of people who create knowledge more representative of our country,” says Luciano Berardi (CSH MA ’10, PhD ’12), director of DePaul’s TRIO programs.
As employers seek to diversify their workforces, demand has never been greater for well-educated employees from underrepresented backgrounds. Higher education is no different, says Terry Vaughan III (LAS ’12), an assistant director in the Center for Access and Attainment who oversees the Mitchem program. “Colleges, particularly graduate schools, know the benefit of having a diverse faculty to serve a growing pool of underrepresented, multicultural college students.”
The payoff extends far beyond simply trying to mirror the composition of the student body. “People’s social backgrounds, either directly or indirectly, influence innovation and creativity. Diversity is a resource and a great producer of knowledge,” says Vaughan. “Should we have a colorblind type of knowledge? No, we actually want to embrace diversity, because it is those students’ backgrounds that are going to lead to new ideas … and make a better society.”
Yet, students from marginalized backgrounds can face invisible barriers. They may come from environments where there is little understanding of what it takes to earn advanced degrees, while faculty in the upper echelons of research-based universities typically have not faced these types of hurdles and are often unaccustomed to multicultural perspectives.
“Whether it’s politics, gender, race or class, these social categories are going to affect students’ success in academia,” says Vaughan, who is African-American and experienced these pressures while earning his PhD in educational policy studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2017. In addition to biases—whether conscious or unconscious—among their peers and professors, students from underrepresented backgrounds must battle their own insecurities. Vaughan suspects this is why they often don’t complete graduate degrees.
“They say graduate school is not about being the smartest but about who persists.”
I’m Not a Unicorn
Frank conversations about race, class and belonging are an integral part of the McNair program, says Quin, who grew up in a low-income household in Chicago. “McNair definitely taught us to remember that we do belong in the professoriate. We are not imposters.”
In fact, the staff deftly turns disadvantage into advantage, says Ema Mujíc, a senior majoring in health sciences who is a Bosnian refugee from the Yugoslavian wars. “They remind me that it’s okay to struggle, it’s okay to be a student with other responsibilities than just classes,” says Mujíc, who works to support her family. “Both Mitchem and McNair acknowledge those two things as strengths that help us build character, not as things weighing us down.”
Because of their similar backgrounds, students quickly bond over everything from the nuances of a properly annotated bibliography to strategies for pushing back against friends who think the scholars are overreaching. Cruz Nichols says her peers became a second family who understood the choices she made: “I wasn’t such a unicorn.”
McNair staff are adept at helping students explain to their families why a summer research internship is so valuable, just as they are adept at helping students land those résumé builders for graduate school applications. One of the reasons first-generation students often don’t pursue graduate degrees is that they start too late in their undergraduate career or can’t persuade their families about the importance of plentiful research experience.
“Being first-generation means that no one at home or close to home will ever break things down for you, tell you what the steps are. This is one of the major barriers,” says Berardi.
The Mitchem and McNair staff are academic career consultants, says Christina Tus (LAS ’12), McNair program director. “It’s really a template. You do these steps, and you have a very good chance of getting accepted into grad school.”
Step by Step
Mitchem Fellows spend their sophomore year creating a literature review that develops how their identity relates to their research interests. For Juan Cuecha, it began with a personal philosophy paper exploring his feelings about his father’s end-stage renal disease.
“I’ve always been introspective, but I never really expressed my feelings in a paper before,” says Cuecha, who emigrated from Colombia and is now a junior double majoring in health sciences and philosophy. “I have existential beliefs and issues that I’m dealing with in regards to death … so I talked about that and how I want to go into medicine in order to [help others cope with fears about death].”
His experiences and his review of existing research melded into curiosity about how patients’ immigration status affects their mental health when they deal with life-threatening illnesses. In addition to learning how to conduct research, Cuecha identified a topic that can contribute to the body of knowledge on the subject. As Vaughan describes it, Cuecha learned “the discourse, the language and how to connect [his] interests to an intellectual, academic or political community.”
The literature review forms the basis of the research that McNair students do, says Mujic. “Through Mitchem we learned to write a really clear argument based on other people’s research, to show if there is a gap in the research and why it would be interesting to look into that.”
Mujic developed a passion for maternal and child health because of her lifelong close connections with women in her family and her desire to care for those who supported her. Her literature review on maternal and child health suggested women’s access to reproductive care varied significantly between nations.
One of the ways the McNair program levels the playing field is by paying for students to study abroad and attend academic conferences. McNair sent Mujíc to Argentina to study how the political and cultural beliefs of medical providers affected their patients’ knowledge of and access to reproductive health services. She presented the resulting research twice, first at a McNair symposium hosted by DePaul and again at the Illinois Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Spring Symposium and Research Conference, where she won first place in the oral presentation in science education competition.
Beyond gaining research skills and credentials, studying abroad has a powerful impact on underrepresented students, Berardi says. “As members of a minority group, they have a particular experience in the United States that they carry with them, but when they are abroad, they are seen as American,” he says. “It helps them rethink themselves at an identity level. They see how small Chicago is and how big the world is.”
A Lifelong Network
The McNair program makes a big world more connected. DePaul’s staff supports participants long after they graduate. Alumni seek out McNair offices or similar programs at the universities where they earn their doctorates. Graduate students from other universities connect with Berardi’s office while they work on PhDs at DePaul or elsewhere in Chicago. Three DePaul faculty members who participated in McNair at other universities often touch base with program staff. Tus even introduces DePaul students and alumni to McNair participants in other states just for coffee. “We’re constantly connecting individuals within this community. It’s almost on a daily basis.”
“The McNair network is just fantastic. I meet McNair alumni all the time at conferences,” says Quin, who describes an instant bond with other participants. Between new peers and old, the McNair network keeps participants plowing through the hard work in graduate school.
“This army of mentors helped me counteract the times that I felt that the end of the program was too far away,” says Cruz Nichols. “You want to cross the finish line because you have all these fans and all these people rooting for you.”
Once they do earn their doctorates, Mitchem and McNair participants are powerfully motivated to give back. Cruz Nichols created “mini-McNair” programs for students and research assistants she’s worked with at the University of Michigan and Indiana University and plans to continue doing so when she becomes a tenure-track faculty member. “I love being able to mentor students who are coming from an underrepresented background,” she says. “It’s especially heartwarming and fulfilling because I can see that they are really looking for some guidance. Their parents can’t necessarily do that for them.”
After he graduated, Quin mentored a DePaul senior in McNair as she was applying to graduate schools. “I helped her with her statement for Columbia [University] and matched her with people I knew in my network she could talk to. She ended up getting into that program. She started this fall.
“I definitely think the cycle continues.”Click here to rate this story and offer feedback.