New Partnership's Aim: Use Languages to Lure Minority Students to Graduate Study at U.Va.

July 27, 2007 -- The University of Virginia is cultivating a new summer community on Grounds with the long-term goal of getting more minority students to pursue graduate-level academic study.

Following one of the recommendations from the Commission on Diversity and Equity, the University is creating partnerships with historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, in Virginia and offering an opportunity for their students to augment their undergraduate experience.

In a pilot program this summer, African-American students who were nominated from Norfolk State and Virginia State universities and from St. Paul’s College are studying foreign languages in U.Va.’s intensive, nine-week Summer Language Institute. The five students received fellowships to attend the program, funded by the U.Va. offices of Graduate Student Diversity Programs and the Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement.
“We found great enthusiasm on the part of our HBCU colleagues for the summer language program,” said Gertrude Fraser, vice provost for faculty advancement. “The idea is to create a summer community so students get the academic programs while connecting to U.Va. as a welcoming environment.” The students are taking Spanish, Italian or Chinese classes for six hours a day and living in U.Va.’s International Residential College dorms. They also have other opportunities to get to know the Grounds.

“There are many social activities designed to promote language learning and camaraderie among the students that take place at the SLI,” said coordinator Caren Freeman. They include weekly soccer games, foreign language films and group cooking projects.

German professor William McDonald has been reaching out to HBCUs in the state for several years, trying to attract minority students to the summer program. Some of his students have had such good experiences they ended up studying in Germany.

“The Summer Language Institute presents choices these students might not have … and gives them an advantage,” he said. The intensive courses surpass most colleges’ two-year requirement, and students may even become fluent, he said. They are also more likely to find out about study-abroad opportunities.

The program has an added benefit for the University: introducing students from HBCUs to U.Va. as a potential place for graduate study, which could increase diversity within the ranks of graduate students and ultimately, the professoriate.

Martina Wilson, a student at Norfolk State who is participating in the intensive Italian program, says she is now considering U.Va. for graduate study. “The professors are exceptional and want nothing but the best from us,” she said.

That’s music to the ears of Cheryl Burgan Evans, director of the year-old Graduate Student Diversity Programs office. “That’s our goal,” she said. “We want them to say that U.Va. is not the image we thought it was, that it is a supportive environment for learning.”

In addition to being exposed to U.Va., the language study gives them a “good scholarly command of a language” for use in graduate research and courses or for other work abroad, McDonald said.

“We want to use this pilot to understand more about the kinds of exchanges that are best suited to us and our HBCU partners,” Fraser said. “I think SLI will prove to be one of them — one idea going forward is that for next summer we will have more lead time to coordinate and fine-tune the student selection process, and we will also know more about factors that enhance persistence.”

Recruitment for this year’s newly approved fellowship program only began in January and February, Evans said. With greater lead-time she hopes to grow the group to 10 or so next summer, and ultimately 20 to 25 students each year.