News: News Archives
AAAS Minority Scholars Call Mentoring Important Factor for Success
When Alicia Williams enrolled in a chemistry Ph.D. program at Louisiana State University, she did what most students do—she found an advisor in her department. Soon, however, she realized that in Professor Isiah Warner, she’d gotten more than an advisor: Warner pushed her to do more than necessary, and he gave her more time and more insight than she’s ever expected.
She’d gotten a mentor.
“My advisor’s standards were harder than my department’s and he emphasized writing and speaking,” Williams pointed out. “Some places have students hand over lab notes and they (grant writers) write it for them … I was taught to do it myself.”
And though Warner’s challenges meant more work, “I feel lucky,” Williams said.
Williams’s comments echoed a common theme at the 2006 annual meeting of the AAAS Graduate Scholars Program, held 13–15 July in Washington, D.C. The program has been successful in finding young science and engineering scholars from historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) and encouraging them to go on to receive their doctorate degrees, an accomplishment that many see as an important contribution to the U.S. talent pool in those fields.
While their remarks at a 14 July open session were as diverse as their research theses, most scholars ultimately credited good mentoring, or the lack there of, as the critical factor in their successes or failures within their graduate programs. Further, the scholars recognized that they will serve as mentors for the next generation of minority science, mathematics and engineering graduate students.
“The most important decision a graduate can make is the selection of an advisor,” said Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources. “If they are lucky, that advisor becomes a mentor who can help the student develop intellectually and transition into a career.”
Xavier University of Louisiana graduate Raegan Higgins knows research is a major impetus for her hard work, but, she said, a Ph.D. also will allow her to become a more effective mentor who can ensure that future African-American students do not experience as many obstacles in pursuing their education.
“It’s about making others’ experiences better,” said Higgins, now seeking a doctorate degree in mathematics at the University of Nebraska. “If your advisor is not helpful, you need to find other organizations that can help you.”
Most graduate programs require students to identify an advisor within their major department. While advisors mainly provide thesis assistance, some students accompany their advisor to professional meetings and other events encouraging networking and the exchange of ideas.
Not all students are offered the opportunity to attend professional meetings, though—and many regret it.
“Meetings offer exposure, jobs, prestige, knowledge and networking,” a Packard Scholar in chemistry said. “Unfortunately, I have not attended meetings with my advisor.”
For many minority scientists, graduate school places increased burdens that can interfere with academics.
Many of the Packard Scholars acknowledged that because graduate programs often have small minority student bodies, those students are expected to meet every potential applicant in hopes of attracting more minority students to the program.
“We are asked a lot of questions, both by students and faculty, because they want to learn” how to diversify the graduate student talent pool, one student offered. “They (faculty) want more African-Americans; but they (African-Americans) don’t come because there are none or very few on campus.”
During scholars’ feedback sessions in previous years, some students said they feel as if they are carrying the burden of their race while trying to concentrate on academics.
To reduce these burdens, Manu Platt, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, suggested that a minority advisor system could be established on campuses across the country. This advisor would serve solely as an advocate for minorities both academically and socially.
For many minority scholars pondering post-graduation plans, there is a strong trade-off when deciding whether to study or teach at an HBCU.
Farrah Jackson Chandler, a scholar who received her Ph.D. in mathematics this year and is now a faculty member at University of North Carolina, Wilmington, notes that because HBCUs often have less funding that other institutions, faculty members have heavy teaching loads with little time for outside research.
“I will be more helpful as a mentor,” Chandler said, “if I get research experience outside an HBCU.”
Platt, who was recently offered a faculty position at Georgia Institute of Technology, plans to first get research experience at a non-HBCU. “I want to get established,” Platt said, “then return to an HBCU” to teach and serve as an advocate.
Daryl Chubin, co-moderator of the session and director of AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity stressed the importance of quality advising, especially for African-American and other minority students. “Gender and racial bias exists … get over it,” Chubin advised the scholars during the open session. “Faculty mentoring can help.”
The meeting was organized by Linda Akli, a senior program associate in AAAS’s Education and Human Resources, along with Chickona Royster and Abdulaziz Yousef.
Originally founded and financed by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in 1992, the Graduate Scholars Program has been under the auspices of AAAS since late 2003.
The program provided a $100,000, five-year doctoral scholarship to exceptional African-American students who graduated from a HBCU. As of June, an estimated 49 scholars have obtained Ph.D. degrees.
Currently, there are 44 scholars still enrolled in the program with several expecting to complete their Ph.D. requirements soon. Alicia Williams expects to finish next summer.While the program is not currently accepting new applications, AAAS is conducting a study to determine how students from HBCUs are funding their science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduate education and if there is a continuing need to provide doctoral fellowships for bachelor’s degree recipients from HBCUs.
2 August 2006