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Boosting Diversity Efforts for Ph.D. Students

Graduate and McCormick schools showcase efforts at Best Practices Forum

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April 4, 2012 | by Megan Fellman
Doris Grillo

Doris Grillo is a chemical engineering Ph.D. candidate from Puerto Rico.

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Demonstrating solid progress in expanding diversity among Ph.D. students at Northwestern University, The Graduate School and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science recently showcased some of their innovative programs.

Deans from The Graduate School (TGS) and McCormick along with the TGS coordinator for multicultural affairs presented at the University’s fifth annual Best Practices Forum held March 19. They outlined a range of present and future programs, including summer research programs, targeted recruitment trips and professional development opportunities.

Organized by the Office of Change Management, the forum offers a way for leaders across the University -- senior directors, associate deans and administrators -- to share practical examples of successful technology, process and people solutions.

Penny Warren, assistant dean of student life and multicultural affairs at TGS, and Bruce Lindvall, assistant dean for graduate studies at McCormick, shared strategies about the University’s success in boosting the number of underrepresented minority students in graduate programs, with a particular focus on those enrolled in McCormick’s Ph.D. programs.

“McCormick has an outstanding yield for underrepresented minorities,” Lindvall said. “We want students considering graduate school to say, ‘I think Northwestern is the right place for me.’”

McCormick has admitted 32 underrepresented Ph.D. students for fall 2012 -- up from 20 students just three years ago, an increase of 60 percent. Lindvall attributed the increase to a variety of outreach, recruitment and marketing strategies at McCormick and The Graduate School.

Chemical engineering doctoral candidate Doris Grillo, 26, who is from Puerto Rico, typifies in many ways the increasingly diverse and multicultural makeup of Northwestern Ph.D. students. She is engrossed in long days as a member of research groups led by McCormick faculty Monica Olvera de la Cruz and Igal Szleifer.

“It’s difficult to meet other students when you’re working 10-hour days, and there’s always something else to read at night,” Grillo said. “But I’m lucky to be in a diverse group. I’ve bonded with others of similar background because my advisor is from Argentina.”

Despite her busy schedule and often solitary work life, Grillo has the vibrant, cosmopolitan lifestyle that living near Chicago makes possible. Now in her fourth year at Northwestern, she shares an apartment in west Evanston with first-year graduate students from Iowa and Ethiopia. And she even takes flamenco dance classes in her free time at a Chicago studio.

Presenting at two best practices sessions, Lindvall and Warren highlighted some of the work that helps bring students like Grillo to Northwestern. They described on-campus summer research programs, faculty showcase events for minority-serving institutions, targeted recruitment trips, personalized communications, and engaging alumni in career-related professional development and other mentoring opportunities.

Lindvall and Warren co-chair the pipeline subgroup of TGS’s working group on diversity.

“These underrepresented students are in demand,” Warren said. “We work hard to engage faculty and alumni with students thinking about Northwestern.”

Mario Craigen, coordinator for multicultural affairs at TGS and a member of the pipeline subgroup, also discussed a number of The Graduate School’s programs, including the Summer Research Opportunity Program.

Dwight A. McBride has brought recruitment of underrepresented minorities into Ph.D. programs to the forefront since becoming associate provost for graduate education and dean of The Graduate School in 2010.

“Already one-third of the U.S. college-aged population is underrepresented minorities, and by 2023, more than half of all U.S. children will be minorities,” said McBride, the Daniel Hale Williams Professor of African American Studies, English and Performance Studies.

“Diversity is a huge priority,” he said. “We must do better working on this challenge. Both the pipeline and the landscape for graduate education -- and especially, elite graduate education -- is transforming, and the goal is to plan for that change. Our data show that underrepresented students who complete their Ph.D.s at Northwestern have more spectacular outcomes on the job market than any other subgroup of our population. We have a unique opportunity to be a leader among our private peers in this important area.”

One of the four critical areas outlined in the Northwestern Strategic Plan 2011, which is now being implemented, is the goal “Connect our community.” Growing stronger through the richness of diversity is a commitment Northwestern is serious about nurturing, promoting and achieving. 

The strategic plan puts it this way: “We are unwavering in our resolve that diversity at Northwestern means far more than disparate groups sharing common space. We celebrate and support a new and fully inclusive mainstream and believe that our diversity -- in the fullest meaning of that word -- enriches all areas of the community. Our vibrancy and vitality derive directly from the breadth of talent, training and life experience found among our staff, faculty, students and alumni.”

The variety of diversity efforts is moving Northwestern in the right direction. The total number of underrepresented minority students enrolled in Ph.D. programs at the University has increased 26 percent in three years, going from 247 students in Fall 2008 to 310 in Fall 2011.

To further enhance its efforts, The Graduate School recently received a grant from the Council of Graduate Schools (backed by the National Science Foundation) to study what helps minority Ph.D. students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics succeed.

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