When Jaclyn Kellon committed to University of Oregon’s Ph.D. chemistry program two years ago, she knew she’d face academic rigor. But the Cleveland native wasn’t prepared to be one of the only minority students in her cohort, and she wasn’t prepared for the sudden onset of self-doubt.
“I’ve always identified as biracial, and I’d say I finally had come to terms with it at the end of college,” she said. “But when I moved here, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m the black person now.’ ”
Since 2005, the number of graduate students of an underrepresented ethnicity has made only modest growth at UO. In 2015, students of color made up 12.7 percent of enrollment, compared with 7.4 percent a decade earlier.
Kellon said that not seeing more students like herself left her questioning her right to be there. On the toughest days, she considered transferring from UO or giving up on a Ph.D. altogether. But after the first year of her program, she resolved to change things.
“I wanted to help others not feel that way,” she said. She began a local chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. But only herself and one other student fit the club’s demographic. The two of them teamed up with another group to form the Community for Minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
As the number of UO graduate students of an underrepresented ethnicity remains low, the students have started taking it upon themselves to recruit and retain a diverse community in the natural sciences. But with few structured programs coming from administration and no sign of a campus-wide culture shift, the groups lack conviction that their legacy will continue.
Fehmi Yasin, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate, said his drive to increase diversity ignited the day he learned he is one of three Latino physicists at UO. There’s 86 students in UO’s graduate physics department in total.
In October, Yasin attended a national conference for diversity in sciences with funding from the physics department and the Community for Minorities in STEM. Over 4,000 students attended the conference, a majority of which were undergraduate students of an underrepresented ethnicity, he said.
“What astounded me is that none of them had UO on their radar at all. None were planning on applying to the graduate program,” Yasin said. He spoke with approximately 20 students about what UO’s science programs have to offer, including the summer research program that he participated in as an undergraduate. He said spending 10 weeks researching and exploring the greater Oregon area was what convinced him that UO was worth the graduate application.
Yasin believes that maybe two to six of the undergraduates he spoke with will actually apply to UO’s graduate programs. “It seems like we should have a recruitment team to go down to conferences like this to really push hard and show that we’re an institution that is supportive,” he said.
Diversity recruitment efforts are largely up to individual departments, especially at the graduate level, according to Gordon Hall, the interim director of the UO’s Center on Diversity and Community.
“We’re just helping departments make sure that they engage in recruitment strategies that help them extend their departments rather than replicate them,” he said. The Center on Diversity and Community was founded in 2001 to advance “inclusive excellence through critical thinking and an ethic of care” among graduate students, faculty and staff. The center coordinates cross-campus diversity training programs, professional development workshops and public events, according to the center’s website.
Since integrating with the Division of Equity and Inclusion in 2013, the center has focused on increasing diversity in faculty hiring, which is “kind of an uphill battle,” according to Hall. Last year, UO hired 12 faculty members of an underrepresented ethnicity, bringing the university’s total to 210 out of 753. Over 70 percent of the tenure-related faculty still identifies as white.
The Center on Diversity and Community serves as a resource for current professors interested in increasing diversity and inclusion. For the natural science faculty, the center holds an annual workshop where professors can exchange ideas on how to better serve underrepresented students.
“The purpose of these workshops is to publicize what’s going on. Many of these people are doing this work because it’s important. They’re doing it without fanfare,” Hall said of the approximately 40 faculty members who attended this year. But some come for another reason.
“When professors are evaluated by their departments for promotion and tenure, they are asked about diversity and inclusion,” Hall said. It’s a motivating factor for why some UO faculty members have incorporated diversity initiatives into their research.
It’s encouraging to see this progress, Hall said. But he acknowledged it’s just the start.
For Kellon, it’s clear that the diversity and inclusion tenure requirement is not enough. She participated in the Center on Diversity and Community’s natural science workshop last year as the only graduate student. No one discussed support programs for students of an underrepresented ethnicity, she said. Instead, they focused on what she sees as the easier way to fill the diversity and inclusion section on tenure paperwork.
“They only talked about [outreach to] women and K-12,” she said. “It blew my mind.”
When she voiced her frustration at the end of the workshop, a few professors followed up with her. They’re now supporting Community for Minority in STEM, she said.
One faculty member taking initiative without incentive is biology professor Patrick Phillips. After working at UO for over 20 years, Phillips grew dissatisfied with the lack of change in diversity among his upper-division biology students, believing that administrative, top-down approaches weren’t working.
“You don’t just talk to students or have them come to a program. You have to really get in there and give them a lot of one-on-one mentorship,” he said. He didn’t know about some of the diversity offices, like the Center for Multicultural Affairs, until recently.
Last year, Ph.D. candidate Alex de Verteuil approached Phillips about starting Students of Color Opportunities for Research Enrichment, and Phillips took the chance to influence effective change. Phillips and de Verteuil equip undergraduates of an underrepresented ethnicity with skills and confidence to gain early research experience, which is typically reserved for older students.
A laboratory is a natural mentorship environment, Phillips said. The nature of research-based learning is hands-on and team-orientated, meaning that students often form an academic community. De Verteuil believes that if they train enough undergraduates to succeed in research, they’ll perpetuate the mentorship, helping the next generation of younger students get into labs.
Phillips fears that de Verteuil’s four-year vision for the group might not continue after she graduates.
“You need some kind of centralized attention from the faculty or administration,” he said.
If not, students like Kellon may continue to feel out of place in the classroom, and the already-low population of underrepresented students could decrease.
“You can recruit students all you want,” Kellon said. “But if this isn’t a place where they’ll want to stay and thrive, then they won’t continue.”
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