Bridging the Gap National Science Foundation initiative eases the transition from undergraduate to graduate studyBy Crystal L. Keels In recent years, the lack of underrepresented groups pursuing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines at the graduate level aroused the concern of some far-sighted advocates. When confronted with this noted absence, however, many colleges and universities traditionally responded with the argument that qualified students from these groups were impossible to find. Yet nearly 23,000 baccalaureate degrees are conferred annually in the United States upon African American, American Indian, Hispanic and Pacific Islander students in the STEM fields. In addition, a preliminary report from the Urban Institute slated for completion in September, suggests that between the years 1992-1997, 51 percent of STEM graduates from underrepresented groups held GPAs of 3.25 or above. “One of the things we heard was that there was a gap between baccalaureate and graduate programs,” explains Dr. Claude Brathwaite, Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) project administrator, based at City College in New York. “A huge number (of underrepresented students) are not necessarily showing up in doctoral programs.”The promise of relatively lucrative employment in the workplace, the fear of incurring additional educational debt and unfamiliarity with the graduate school process are some reasons significant numbers of STEM graduates have not enrolled into terminal degree programs in the past, Brathwaite explains. The Bridge to the Doctorate initiative (BD), conceptualized by Dr. A. James Hicks, LSAMP program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF), was established in 2003 to address those issues and bridge that gap.As a supplementary activity to the congressionally mandated LSAMP Program implemented in 1991 to increase the number of underrepresented STEM graduates from undergraduate institutions, the BD initiative operates under the auspices of The Directorate for Education and Human Resource through the Division of Human Resource Development.“This is an investment by the nation to move students into graduate schools,” says Hicks, who formerly served a decade as dean of North Carolina A&T State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Into the graduate arenaThe Bridge to the Doctorate initiative is designed with the ultimate goal to increase the number of underrepresented groups in the professorate, with an immediate goal to “broaden the students’ participation and get them into the graduate arena,” Hicks says.The latter is accomplished with two years of funding from the LSAMP program that allows students to enter graduate programs financially unencumbered. Beginning in the fall of 2003, the initial cohort of BD participants received 12-month stipends of $27,000 and 10,000 for tuition. In the fall of 2004, the second cohort will see increased stipends of $30,000 and tuition payments of $10,500. Students focus initially on the first two years of graduate school, rather than the five to seven years it can take to complete a doctoral program, a time commitment many might see as a daunting prospect. “We give it to them piecemeal,” Hicks says.Once BD students enter a graduate program they participate in workshops and other activities that demystify the pursuit of graduate education — all without the stress of funding issues. BD participants are linked with faculty mentors, establish research projects, attend conferences in their fields, make poster presentations, establish networks and learn the ropes of the graduate process — which includes the knowledge that doctoral programs in the STEM disciplines generally provide fellowships for students to complete their degrees. Hicks says with this type of preparation, students “will stay the course” once they see the opportunities available to them. “The key was to get the students’ attention” and get them acclimated, he says. Currently, 130 students from underrepresented groups are now enrolled in master’s degree programs in 13 LSAMP program sites across the country at participating institutions that were selected on the basis of submitted applications. More than 250 students will be involved by 2006, Hicks says.In August 2003, a cohort of 10 STEM graduates entered each of the 13 sites at participating institutions including Auburn University in Alabama; the University of California, Los Angeles; Florida State University; Jackson State University; the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras; Texas A&M University; and Arizona State University. The sites are centralized bases for the institutions across the nation that participate in LSAMP alliances.“The institutions have to be a partner,” Hicks explains. “The BD activity was developed to ensure that students could walk over from undergraduate to graduate study.” Upon completion of the first two years, students enter doctoral programs at participating institutions, which, as part of their agreement, fund the students’ final years of graduate study. BD students are not limited to participating institutions, however, and are encouraged to broaden their academic horizons, for either the doctorate, the post-doctorate or at some other point in their careers. “One thing we have to impress to students is that they need to make a decision about when they are going to MIT or Stanford,” says Brathwaite, adding that the nurturing environment of the BD initiative gives students the foundation they need to succeed in any setting. STRENGTH IN NUMBERS “The biggest advantage of having this program is to make students feel comfortable that they can start and complete a Ph.D. program,” says Dr. Patricia L. Stith, coordinator of the Florida-Georgia Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (FGLSAMP), a coalition of 12 institutions based at Florida State University. A significant aspect of establishing that comfort is that 10 BD students with similar academic interests simultaneously enter graduate programs at the same institutions. “It’s in that group that they will find strength,” Stith says. And that group becomes part of the culture at participating institutions as well. During one of the first activities at Florida State University last fall, for example, BD students interacted with advanced graduate students, undergraduate students and faculty members in physical challenges designed to foster a cooperative environment. Workshops on preparing for graduate school, securing funding, sessions with faculty members about successful careers in the academy and a group GRE session were also all part of the students’ first year experiences. “We are very proud to be one of the first recipients of the Bridge to the Doctorate program,” says Stith. “It is a direct way of meeting the need of diversifying science, technical engineering and mathematics faculties throughout the country. It’s a serious national security need,” she adds. Dr. Ricardo B. Jacquez, project director/ program coordinator of the New Mexico Alliance for Minority Participation based at New Mexico State University, also notes the larger implications of the BD initiative.“The diversity of the role models in STEM is going to change in a way that is going to provide examples and encourage underrepresented students to look to becoming professors, researchers and contribute to the intellectual development of this country,” he says. Jacquez says BD will produce highly qualified individuals who will become part of the intellectual infrastructure necessary to keep the nation at the international forefront in arenas like space exploration and the environment.“We need to make sure we remain competitive,” he says. “They have to cultivate and make it work; we have to plant the seeds,” Jacquez says about the roles and responsibilities of individual students and the BD initiative itself. Those seeds have already started to take root. “I am a young scientist in training, and I should regard myself as one,” says Charity Mobley, BD participant at Jackson State University. “I never thought of myself as a scientist before. I should take this opportunity to network and make my presence known.” Even as she acknowledges the rigors of graduate study, Mobley says she intends to complete a doctorate in chemistry and work in forensic toxicology. She says the contacts she makes through BD are essential to making that happen. This summer, for example, she is working as an intern in an environmental toxicology unit at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, an agency of the Department of Defense in Washington. Developing relationships with federal agencies as well as businesses is an important component of the BD initiative. Carlton Chiles and Levell Spencer, both BD students at North Carolina A&T State University, have an appreciation for that aspect of the program. Chiles, whose interest is in industrial and systems engineering, is currently working with R Squared Landscaping Inc. as research for his master’s project. Chiles is spending the summer observing the company and is composing standard operating procedures for the landscapers. He says last year the company lost $10,000, but this year he has already saved them $3,000. Chiles says his plan is to combine engineering with his interest in graphic communications, and his ultimate goal is to teach. He says BD seminars on implementing a master’s project, transitioning the master’s project to a dissertation project and how to move up the ranks of the professorate have been extremely helpful. He also notes the benefits of working with his cohort. “A lot of us work together,” he says. “We share techniques for studying, different methods to use. It is helpful to have other people’s support.” Spencer, whose interest is also in industrial technology, is part of that cohort at North Carolina A&T. As the capstone for his first year, Spencer’s summer internship is at Caterpillar Inc. where he works with engineering managers on various projects. He says as a BD participant he has been able to expand his knowledge base by listening, learning and asking questions of other students and faculty members. A class with Ph.D. students pursuing a second master’s degree posed a challenge that Spencer, just out of undergraduate school, met successfully. “I had to bring it up a little,” he says about his performance in the class. He did so by approaching those experienced students and asking them for strategies to improve. They were forthcoming, and he learned a valuable lesson. “Don’t be scared to ask for help,” Spencer says. He says the BD cohort is also an invaluable component of the BD initiative. “We are exposed to opportunities for professional development, and we look out for one another,” he explains. “These are people I identify with, and I am comfortable. We make sure everyone moves along. If I can continue this onto my Ph.D., it will be great.” “We are really excited about what this program does for the students,” says Marcia Williams, North Carolina LSAMP Alliance Coordinator based at North Carolina A&T. She articulates her enthusiasm about what the program does on a larger scale as well. “Any learning that lacks diversity lacks an important element of learning,” Williams says. “To find a nation devoid of diversity would be really unfortunate. Dr. Hicks has shown tremendous vision for the future. He is a champion of minority students in STEM.”Hicks says he is energized by the BD initiative because of the opportunity it presents to remove some of the major obstacles that can prohibit underrepresented students’ graduate success. “I can reach more students from a national platform, from Montana to Puerto Rico,” Hicks points out. “That is my passion and that is what I have been talking about. I’m tired of talking. Now I’m about action.”
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