The University of Connecticut (UConn), a senior representative of the Northeast Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (NELSAMP), was awarded $987,000 through the Bridge to the Doctorate Activity (BD Activity) to support 12 graduate students from African American, Hispanic and/or Native American populations during the first two years of their studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. The suite of activities offered to BD Fellows through the BD Activity include cohort meetings among participants, focused plans of study, K-12 mentoring/outreach opportunities, career preparation, and professional development instruction. BD Faculty Advisors serve as engaged, hands-on mentors, and commit to fostering their Fellow’s participation in skills-building courses and to providing financial support beyond the two-year BD funding period.
The BD Activity at UConn operated from August 2012 to August 2015, and served a total of 14 graduate students. Three BD Fellows have completed their Master’s degree, completely funded by the BD program. One Fellow ended up leaving the university with their Advisor. And the remaining 10 Fellows are still working on completing their degrees, with one working towards a Master’s degree and the other nine towards a PhD. The BD Fellows include eight males and six females, with five African-Americans and nine Hispanics.
Survey results show the majority of BD Fellows had a research plan, with all the individual components (meeting schedule, graduate coursework, and academic milestones), in place. Moreover, all Fellows stated they were clear about their Advisor’s academic and research expectations from them. The majority of Fellows felt Advisors made themselves available outside of regularly scheduled meetings, and all Fellows said they felt comfortable contacting their Advisor as needed. One Advisor commented, “My BD fellow expects me to meet with [them], so I do. The same does not apply to my other students. They meet at my request, not vice-versa. I would say my BD fellow is more enabled to take charge of [their] own PhD training. [They are] getting more out of it because [they are] more proactive.”
Fellows met with the BD Program Administrators, Aida Ghiaei & Joy Erickson, biweekly. During these meetings Fellows and the Administrators discussed general expectations, activities for professional development, opportunities for teaching and conferences, ways to assess progress, and where to go for help with issues. 100% of Fellows in each year of the BD program found these meetings with each other and the Program Administrators useful.
BD Fellows participated in K-12 outreach and mentoring, and were also active in speaking about their UConn experiences with family and friends. Three Fellows specially mentioned recruiting a family member to UConn, two actively recruited a friend, and another two mentioned easing their friends concerns about UConn as an academic institution.
All BD Fellows participated in a one-credit professional development course that touched on a range of topics, including ethics, teaching, communication, innovation and creativity. Fellows also covered interviews, resumes, cover letters, and workplace issues in the workshops as well.
By the third year of the BD Activity, 83% of Fellows had attended a conference, with 60% of them having presented a paper or poster at the conference. Furthermore, 50% of Fellows have authored a publication. Advisors were asked if they expect to present or publish based on the work of their BD Fellow. All stated they intend to present at conferences and publish with their Fellow.
On top of encouraging minority students to complete graduate degrees, the BD program can also be utilized to understand which factors are influential in minority students’ decision to pursue graduate school. Fellows found altruistic motives to make a difference and further scientific knowledge as the most influential factor to pursuing higher education. These were followed by interest and enjoyment of research. Growth potential and future career options were the next most important factors to Fellows in choosing to pursue a graduate degree. Income potential was rated less important by Fellows, coming in 11th out of the 15 options provided.
Fellows were also asked to note how valuable they found various BD program activities. The activity most Fellows found of greatest value was interactions with each other, and the sense of community it fostered. As one Fellow stated, “The BD program provides a support group of like-minded fellows that look like me which is difficult to find in many departments in the university. I also appreciate the bi-weekly meetings to keep me on track of why I am here and help me focus on the bigger picture which can become blurred in the daily routine.” Fellows also noted how the program administrator and overall program layout motivated them to pursue higher goals.
Fellows were asked how satisfied they are with the overall BD program. 70% in each year said they were very satisfied, with the remainder being satisfied. In the second year one Fellow was neutral about the program. Considering all responses provided overall years, 90% of Fellows said they appreciate the BD activities they have participated in so far, with 45% strongly appreciative. 73% of Fellows said they would like the opportunity to participate in more BD activities, with 27% strongly agreeing. 68% of Fellows say they participate in the BD program for more than just the funding
It is worth noting Advisors also benefited from participation in the BD Activity. 94% of Advisors across all years agreed other graduate students would benefit from the training and workshops BD Fellows participate in. And 77% of Advisors either agreed or strongly agreed that other graduate students would benefit from a formalized research plan/mentoring structure as required under the BD Program, with four Advisors being neutral about the statement. Finally, 53% of Advisors agreed they learned ways to be better advisors due to meeting obligations of the BD Program.