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    Lesson Nine – Support Systems for Underrepresented Students
    Lesson Nine – Support Systems for Underrepresented Students

    Although the degree completion rate for doctoral students in general is unacceptably low (Smallwood, 2004; Lovitts, 2001), that rate for underrepresented minorities and women is even lower (CGS, 2004; Smallwood, 2004). Often students are disadvantaged for many reasons. Being a minority of any kind (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, age, and health) can be challenging, and that fact, when added to the rigors, competitiveness, and impersonality of graduate education, is often a heavy burden to carry.

    For these and other reasons, a university that is committed to inclusiveness and diversity must deliberately put into place a series of safety nets that make success possible and that seek to address the challenges of being, for example, a woman physicist or an American Indian biochemist, particularly when you are one of the only students of this background. These individuals have often been marginalized within their disciplinary communities, and overcoming that marginalization takes a determined effort.


    The university should focus not simply on financial incentives, but also on the support systems and networks undertaken by the university’s administrators, faculty and staff, ancillary professionals, and graduate students. In other words, creating campus awareness about the importance of inclusiveness and diversity and providing support backed by institutional resources are critical for overall success. Existing student support offices on campuses often focus their efforts on undergraduates. These offices must be sensitized to their responsibility for serving graduate students who are from racial and ethnic minority groups or other nations.


    In the overall mission to create a campus environment of inclusiveness, building a sense of collective support and excitement about the learning environment among underrepresented minority students is likely to be attractive. Students from a variety of underrepresented groups are especially helped by programs, faculty, and current students who can decipher the “unwritten rules” of the institution or the dominant culture.


    Throughout these Lessons Learned are scattered examples of programs and initiatives that can address the vulnerable situation of minority doctoral students. Their provision should not be a last-minute add-on; they should be basic to the university’s culture.


    Components of the new student orientation should highlight successful current women and minority graduate students and faculty. Setting an example of inclusivity from the start will set a positive tone.


    A strong, visible Graduate Student Association can be a very effective mechanism for supporting a diverse graduate student population and for sponsoring activities that strengthen community-building among minority students. These services might include peer-mentoring provided by advanced graduate students from underrepresented minority groups. Or GSA could sponsor weekly breakfasts in their offices.


    Summer bridge programs provide an added head-start to graduate education and can be an effective mechanism to help students with specific vulnerabilities get launched on a positive note. These experiences are key to socializing the student into graduate study.


    The provision of support services around writing, editing, and statistics for graduate students can be especially helpful. While many students have strong skills in these areas, others need a support system. Such services provide a cost-effective way to facilitate the completion of publications and academic milestones.


    Periodic meetings with staff members from key student administration offices on campus —Financial Aid, Housing, Student Accounts Receivable, Counseling, and Mental Health —can make these staffs sensitive to the complex needs borne by students who not only are graduate students, but are also from minority segments of the population. A successfully inclusive academy serves all students.


    Departmental or campus-wide speaker series should include leading scholars who come from various underrepresented groups. This is another area where faculty and staff engagement and ownership is critical to achieving an inclusive community of scholars.


    Retreats, workshops, and social events that are designed to address the needs of underrepresented minorities across departments and graduate programs are crucial to facilitating networking and community-building. Such events could, for example, bring together women doctoral students, or Hispanic STEM students. The Office of Student Affairs could assist in sponsoring these important social events that build informal support systems for minority individuals.


    Graduate program directors and mentors need to be sensitive to signs of academic struggling among students so that appropriate and timely interventions can occur. The agenda of monthly meetings of graduate program directors can periodically include topics relating to diversity and inclusiveness among the graduate population. Reminders can be made that GPAs should be monitored; the mentor-student match should be carefully made and changed if necessary; opportunities for special study groups or additional background courses might be recommended; and referral to the counseling or advisement centers could be made where appropriate.


    Support staff in each graduate program office should be included in the effort to make the campus environment one that is welcoming and supportive to all students. Monthly meetings of the graduate support staff can provide a mechanism that, among other benefits, highlights the importance of seeing that all graduate students—including non-traditional students—succeed and receive help when required.


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