“We don’t turn anyone away,” says Maria Erb. “Ever,” Kathy Wood adds emphatically.
Maria and Kathy, co-directors of The Graduate School’s Diversity and Student Success Program (DSS), know that diverse experiences, backgrounds, viewpoints and contributions are key elements to everyone’s success. Large institutions like UNC “aren’t successful unless their student body looks like our country.” The Graduate School has broadly defined diversity to include as many students as possible in its efforts to contribute to each student’s graduation. Are you a graduate student? From another country? A student of color? Military-affiliated? LGBTQIA+-identifying? All of these identities? Maria and Kathy have developed initiatives that will meet your needs and provide you with community.
Specifically, DSS recognizes and supports the intersectionality of diverse identities through five diversity initiatives, Carolina Grad Student F1RSTS, Global Grads, Initiative for Minority Excellence, Military-Affiliated Grads, and Queer Graduate and Professional Students. In addition, the Summer Undergraduate Pipeline is a recruitment initiative that works to diversify Carolina’s graduate population.
When the Diversity and Student Success Program began at The Graduate School in 2014, it was small. Small as in few students, limited programming, minimal staff and lots of questions about where funding would come from. But there was passion for the work and a recognized need to attract and retain diverse graduate students. Over the last four years, the program has changed and expanded and is now a national model. Its five diversity initiatives and one recruitment initiative serve the diverse population of approximately 9,000 graduate and professional students.
The growth of DSS has been spearheaded by Maria and Kathy. They spend their days in a converted church on Cameron Avenue, an appropriate venue for the work Maria refers to as their “ministry.”
“It’s part of our spirits,” according to Kathy. “Our students keep our eyes open all the time and enrich our lives. They open our eyes to things. It’s beautiful.”
For the two years since Maria’s arrival at UNC, this team of two has driven DSS forward. They listen to students and allow them to shape programming that is meaningful to their experience. But ultimately, DSS is more than just events or dinners or speaker series. “That relationship with our students — it makes the difference for them and for us.”
The impact of the program can be hard to quantify. Results come in stories instead, like one shared by Maria: “One of our graduate students, she was a master’s student and had numerous challenges from the onset — including financial difficulties and temporary homelessness. We had lunch, and she just said to me, ‘If it weren’t for you, and if it weren’t for DSS, I would not have made it.’ And because this is part of our role and part of our everyday life, we forget. We’re like, ‘Oh! It made that big of an impact.’ This does make a difference, even if it’s hard to measure that with data.”
The mission of DSS goes beyond the years a student spends in Chapel Hill. Diverse students have faced and will continue to face barriers in their life. For example, they know that no matter where students may land upon graduation they may still face challenges such as being the only person of color in their work space, not being able to leverage the same social and economic capital as some of their colleagues, just to name a few. With the support, encouragement and engagement they receive at Carolina, they are equipped to take on new challenges after graduation. In DSS, Maria and Kathy have built something that can’t be found at any other graduate school.
“I think we’re doing something right and innovative. Carolina should love this, right? It’s innovation made fundamental.”