U.Va. Seeks an Inclusive Graduate Student Community

March 17, 2009 — On the surface, a faculty mentor and graduate student might be of different ethnic, racial and gender backgrounds, but University of Virginia graduate education student Carl Keys pointed out that differences don't stop there.

"We also have different world views because of our chosen fields and upbringings — mine being California primarily, whereas she spent most of her time in Pennsylvania and Delaware," Keys said, comparing himself to his mentor Roseanne Ford, associate vice president for graduate studies and a professor of chemical engineering.

"It is these differences that have helped us to forge a common bond and identify with each other. Her experiences as the only or one of few women in her position and classes mirrors mine as an African-American male," said Keys, a first-year doctoral student in the administration and supervision program in the Curry School of Education.

Keys and Ford were paired in a new program, the Inter-Ethnic Interdisciplinary Mentoring Institute for Graduate Education, intended to help create an inclusive environment for welcoming, retaining and encouraging graduate students to feel part of the University community when they come here to do their graduate work.

"Actually, there are three of us that work together: a mentor, mentee and a 'coach,'" Ford said. "A more senior graduate student, Justin Rose, is our coach. His role is to provide some insight to the mentor (me) on aspects of racial and cultural sensitivity."

Initially, the mentors meet with institute director Cheryl Burgan Apprey to get some background on the new program, including a resource notebook about mentoring.

"Carl and I have been using some of the articles to guide our discussions," said Ford, who said she meets with Keys once a week "to talk about his courses, what he's learning, his short-term and long-term goals, his family and their adjustment to Charlottesville, etc. I try to provide support and encouragement and answer whatever questions he has about how to get something done at the University or how to balance school, work and family."

The mentoring institute — which received start-up funds from the University and from the Council of Graduate Schools through the Peterson's Award for Innovation in Promoting an Inclusive Graduate Community — is just one new initiative designed to help minority graduate students succeed at the University.

Fulfilling a recommendation made by the Commission on Diversity and Equity, the Office of Graduate Student Diversity Programs opened in fall 2005. The office's goal is "to break down the isolation that occurs across the community of underrepresented graduate students," Apprey said. Her office looks for ways to complement and coordinate efforts with other departments and schools on Grounds to increase and support diversity in U.Va.'s graduate student population.

U.Va. President John T. Casteen III has made it clear that diversity is among the University's highest goals. "We value diversity here because it has to do with the human richness, the variety of experiences and backgrounds and perspectives and reasons for learning that distinguish us as people, based on our own backgrounds, our own expectations [and] our own prior experiences," he has said.

The University's award-winning undergraduate Peer Advisor Program is credited with contributing to U.Va.'s high graduation rate for African-American students, ranked first among public institutions for the 15 straight years. The Mentoring Institute will work toward a similar goal, Apprey said.

"The University aspires to achieve the same success for its graduate student population and believes the Mentoring Institute is an important step toward reaching that goal," she said.

Research shows effective mentoring that includes attention to diverse backgrounds better positions those graduate students for future success, Apprey said. People at the Mentoring Institute will carry out a pilot study that focuses on addressing multicultural issues and the experiences of students from diverse backgrounds. The study will include "reciprocal mentoring," in which the graduate students share their cultural background with faculty members, regardless of their racial or ethnic identity.

U.Va. Darden business professor Martin Davidson has conducted research on what constitutes effective mentoring. "Faculty members must cultivate an appreciation for and an understanding of the experiences of students from diverse backgrounds," he said. "Thus, preparing mentors to be culturally sensitive, regardless of their own racial identity, enhances the impact of the mentoring relationship."

The first cohort of faculty mentors includes six professors: Robert Fatton Jr., Julia A. Cooper Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs in the Department of Politics; Bob Swap, research associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences; William Johnson, chairman of Materials Science and Engineering; Randolph Pope, Commonwealth Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature; Maurice Apprey, dean of the Office of African-American Affairs and professor of medicine; as well as Ford.

All of the participants have gotten together a few times for dinner, providing time for some informal training during those sessions. 

"The significance of the program," Fatton said, "is that it encourages the development of a new generation of scholars by facilitating their integration into a new and occasionally difficult and bewildering environment."

Fatton is mentoring Tanya Nichols, who is in the clinical and social psychology program at the Curry School. Their mentoring coach is Melissa Lansey from biomedical engineering.

"As a mentor, my goal is to share my 27 years of experience at U.Va. with these students and facilitate their adaptation to the University and Charlottesville," Fatton said. "In addition, meeting graduate students from other disciplines and with varied backgrounds has given me a sense of the value of interdisciplinary work.

"In short, being a mentor entails a reciprocal process of learning — in many ways the mentee becomes the mentor," he said.

"Being supported and guided by seasoned U.Va. faculty has been very helpful for my adjustment and transition into my doctoral program," Nichols said. "I value having the opportunity to learn about helpful resources and appreciate having a culturally diverse and multidisciplinary support system and professional network outside of my program."

Keys said he thinks it is important to have mentoring that is specifically oriented to diversity because of the unique obstacles faced by underserved and underrepresented populations.

"Having someone with Roseanne's expertise, in the stage of her career she's in, affords me access to and understandings about the University I may otherwise not have had.

"The fact that she is fully grounded in her field, is consulting and has prioritized making the time to further understand the full scope of students here at U.Va. … The fact that a program like this exists has made the transition into doctoral studies, work and life more palatable.

"I treasure the time we meet and when I have questions — I always have questions — I have someone I can turn to who respects me, my work and intelligence to give me honest feedback, criticism or suggestions as needed," Keys said.

Ford responded, "What I get out of it is an opportunity to spend time with a bright, energetic, ambitious young man, learn about his goals and achievements and struggles, and maybe in a small way contribute to his success at the University and his future career.

"I've had many mentors who contributed to my life in meaningful ways, and I would find it very satisfying if I could do something like that for Carl," she said.

Interested first-year doctoral students, who received information at the Annual
Fall Retreat for Diverse Graduate Students the week before classes started, were eligible to apply for the mentoring program. The application requires an essay be submitted on what a mentor would mean to the student.

Along with recruiting and training faculty and graduate students to become mentors, the institute will hold workshops, seminars and cultural events, analyzing and compiling best practices in diversity for the higher education community. The activities could be incorporated into a similar mentoring program for all interested graduate students and faculty at a later time.

Planning a visitation weekend is another activity held for the first time last weekend to persuade diverse graduate students that U.Va. could be the best school for them, by giving them a wider and more inclusive look. Students who have been accepted to a U.Va. graduate program visited the Grounds and were paired with current graduate students to get a better sense of what it's like to be at the University. The current students helped plan this event, Apprey said.

In addition, the graduate student diversity office conducts a retreat at the beginning of each semester. The revived Black Graduate and Professional Student Association has picnics to mark the beginning and end of the school year.

"We are building a community. A larger number of students is attending the retreat each time," Apprey said.

— By Anne Bromley