Whenever John Paul Balmonte attends an oceanography conference or goes on fieldwork expeditions, he often feels somewhat isolated. Balmonte, a second-year doctoral student in the marine sciences department, is Filipino. “I definitely feel like I am alone, in terms of the color of my skin and my cultural perspective,” he said, referring to his field of study. “In that sense it is still very difficult to find others who I can relate with culturally.”
Jami Powell, a doctoral student in the anthropology department and a citizen of the Osage Nation, has experienced a different type of seclusion. As the first member of her family who will obtain a doctoral degree, Powell said she sometimes has a hard time communicating with her parents about the experiences she is going through in graduate school.
Feelings of isolation are not rare among minority and other underrepresented graduate students, who can face difficulties finding role models and peers in their fields with whom they can identify.
The recently launched Diversity and Student Success program at UNC-Chapel Hill aims to address some of the issues that students such as Balmonte and Powell often experience. Kacey Hammel, who co-directs the program with Kathy Wood, said they hope to increase retention of underrepresented graduate students and see them graduate happily.
The program, based in The Graduate School, will take a holistic approach by addressing the academic, professional and social aspects of the students’ academic careers.
This multifaceted method is one of the most exciting aspects of Diversity and Student Success, according to Balmonte, who thinks many academic programs show a lot of interest for diverse students during recruitment, but fall short once diverse students arrive on campus.
“There is usually a very strong commitment to recruiting diverse students, but particularly in the hard sciences, once you get there, there are no other diversity programs that are intended for graduate students,” he said. “It almost feels as though it stops at the website and at the recruitment phase. So anything that helps us achieve our goals will be really good.”
Another common major concern among graduate students is finances. While the program won’t provide money for tuition, it will offer some financial support for students to attend conferences and other events that benefit their academic and professional development. It will also provide resources and workshops on how to find funding.
The Diversity and Student Success program was modeled after the Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate, or AGEP. This initiative promotes the success of students of diverse backgrounds in the lab and social sciences.
According to Valerie Ashby, professor and head of the chemistry department, AGEP has been extremely successful in making sure that students are supported and move forward in their careers. If Diversity and Student Success works as expected, it could be applied to the graduate student body.
“If we can figure out how to do this in The Graduate School for underrepresented students, it could be a model for supporting underrepresented graduate students at any university,” Ashby said.
At the program’s launch event, Chancellor Carol L. Folt applauded the initiative and remembered her own time as a graduate student when she was the only woman in a program of 17 people.
“When I got my first job, all the women scientists at Dartmouth, including everybody in the medical school, would not fill a single table,” Folt said. “I can’t tell you the joy I feel when I look out and see so many women here, and then when I look out and see so many people from diverse backgrounds here. It really warms my heart.”
(Read more about the launch of the Diversity and Student Success program.)
Powell said she’s excited about the support network that the Diversity and Student Success program will bring together. “It’s nice to have a community of people to talk through those issues with,” she said. Powell said she is looking forward to seeing collaboration among faculty, staff and graduate students.
Beyond benefiting individual students, perhaps one of the most important aspects of the program is that in the long term it will have a profound impact on the entire community.
“You need the success of the diverse population in order to tackle world problems,” Hammel said. “You need to sit around at a table and come up with solutions to these problems with other people who don’t look like you, who come up with different ideas than you. So that, naturally, is going to benefit the majority population students, too.”
♦ Written by Andrea Patiño Contreras, master’s degree candidate in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
We live in a diverse world so we need to ensure that these diverse populations are successfully completing graduate school too and some of these students have different needs, so we need to meet the needs of these students.
Shelby Dawkins-Law, Ph.D student: I’m really excited that this is happening. I’ve been a student at the school actually since undergrad, so I’ve been here about eight years and to see the magnitude of support from the highest levels of the administration is something that I think it’s kind of unprecedented at UNC. Never have I seen the sort of magnitude within the graduate school itself. We always have had allies in that department, and positions meant for that purpose, but to see an actual program grow out of that, is really exciting for me.
Kacey Hammel, Co-director of the Diversity and Student Success program: You need the success of the diverse population in order to tackle world problems. So you need when you are in these graduate programs, you need to sit around at a table and come up with solutions to these problems with other people who don’t look like you, who come up with different ideas than you. So that, naturally, is going to benefit the majority population students, too.