PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Among the many ambitious goals set in Brown University’s 2016 Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion action plan was the plan to double the number of graduate students from historically underrepresented groups (HUGs) by 2022.
Not only would achieving that goal benefit the Brown campus — with a greater diversity of perspectives central to excellence in teaching, research and more — but it would contribute to building a pipeline of potential leaders in higher education and the public and private sectors as well.
This fall, as the largest-ever cohort of students from HUGs enters the Graduate School — representing 12 percent of the incoming class — the University has taken a step toward meeting the action plan’s goal and, even more importantly, contributing to a more diverse world beyond Brown.
Compared with 2015, the year preceding the launch of the diversity and inclusion action plan, the number of first-year graduate students who identify as belonging to a HUG increased by 38 percent. For Ph.D. programs, the number increased by 65 percent. Among the Graduate School's total population of approximately 2,300 students, a total of 254 graduate students from HUGs are working toward degrees; in 2015, that number was 204.
Andrew Campbell, dean of the Graduate School, calls the arrival of the incoming 2017-18 graduate cohort a significant moment.
“This work is important to Brown and bigger than Brown,” Campbell said. “Graduate students are scientists in training who will conceive of life-saving drugs. They are engineers and designers who will turn ideas into on-the-ground solutions. They are humanists who will help us understand ourselves. In diversifying our Graduate School student body, we are turning a sharper and more relevant eye to the challenges that society faces. That’s what true diversity does.”
A pathway to a more diverse Graduate School
Marlina Duncan, the Graduate School’s associate dean of diversity initiatives, says that doubling the number of graduate students from HUGs will take a continuous and highly intentional effort.
During the application cycle for this fall’s incoming class, Duncan worked with academic departments across campus to identify and recruit promising students of color, paying close attention to where applicants’ research interests intersected with those of Brown faculty. She consulted with departments to create strategic recruitment plans that brought more candidates for campus visits, incorporated holistic application review and avoided implicit bias in the application review process.
Duncan said that the Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion plan — which not only set institution-wide goals, but required each academic department to create a plan for strengthening diversity and inclusion — was a crucial backdrop to her departmental outreach and training.
“These conversations and strategies around diversity and inclusion were already happening when I started reaching out to departments,” she said. “What we want to do is recruit and enroll the best and brightest students to Brown — in order to do that it was important for everyone to understand the larger context of how increasing diversity enhances academic excellence within departments and in the University as a whole.”
The Graduate School invited potential STEM graduate students of color to campus for a fall preview day, enabling prospective students to get to know campus even before applications were due. This complemented the already established “Super Monday,” an annual event that brings accepted Ph.D. students of color to campus.
Campbell said that bringing students to campus early in the admissions cycle is a way for them to see the University’s commitment to diversity among the student body in action and that it is particularly important for these students to interact with and form connections with all faculty, including faculty of color.
“More students of color are applying to Brown because more of them want to be here,” he said. “And that’s because we have outstanding faculty doing outstanding research, but it’s also because Brown is becoming known as a place to where outstanding faculty of color are attracted and well represented and where faculty in general recognize the added value and unique perspectives that underrepresented students offer.”
While Duncan and Campbell say the Graduate School has made strides, they agree that much work remains.
“Our long-term goal is to accurately reflect what our country looks like in terms of demographics because it says something about who we serve and what we do — and the relevance of our research,” Campbell said. “In the short term, we need to make sure that the students of color who are here now have a sense of belonging that will enable them to succeed and thrive.”
At home at Brown
To that end, this year the Brown Center for Students of Color (BCSC) partnered with the Graduate School to host the Brown’s first-ever orientation program for graduate students of color. The idea emerged during meetings of the graduate student diversity board, where members cited a need for a beginning-of-the-year event that would address issues specific to students of color.
The orientation aimed to build community among graduate students of color — some of whom are the only student of color in their department — as well as to introduce resources for support and advocacy during their time at Brown, said Shay Collins, the assistant director of co-curricular initiatives at the BCSC who organized the orientation with BCSC graduate student coordinator Tina Park, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology. As students arrived on campus in late August, the one-day orientation featured seminars on everything from navigating departmental relationships and building a strong résumé to overcoming imposter syndrome and living as a person of color in Providence.
Collins said the orientation is part of an increased effort within the BCSC to provide support to and promote retention among graduate students of color at Brown.
“We want these students to know that they are valued and that there are people here who will support and advocate for their needs and listen to them when they say they need something,” Collins said. “We can get students here, but if we don’t actively work to support them and meet their needs, it’s hard to see why they would stay. Our goal is not just for them to survive their time at Brown — I would like this work to enable them to thrive here.”
René Cordero, an incoming Ph.D. candidate in Latin American history, said he attended the orientation because he was looking for community, as well as practical tools to alleviate his occasional anxiety that he doesn’t belong at Brown or that he won’t be able to successfully complete his program — anxieties that he says are common among graduate students of color, particularly at selective institutions like Brown. The orientation delivered, he said — both practical tips as well as a deep sense of community and belonging.
“It was powerful seeing so many students of color together in one room who are in the academy,” Cordero said. “The emphasis was that you are not here because of luck or because of a quota. You are here because you are supposed to be, because people of color should be in spaces like Brown.”