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A taste of grad school

A taste of grad school

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

TRIO scholars explore community, graduate education possibilities

Nine visiting scholars are getting a taste of life at the University of Delaware this summer and exploring options for graduate school in a pilot project hosted by the University's McNair Scholars Program.

And it's not just a quick walkabout and a cup of coffee. These students – from Marquette University and Beloit College in Wisconsin, Bloomfield (New Jersey) College and Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma – are here for 10 weeks, working with faculty mentors and thinking hard about how advanced learning and research might be part of their futures.

The pilot program, supported by the Office of Graduate and Professional Education with financial support from the office of Provost Domenico Grasso, is geared for students from under-represented groups and/or low-income backgrounds – as the McNair Scholars Program is. Many are the first in their families to attend college.

"When you grow up in the Midwest and you're first-generation, you don't really know what is offered," said Akila Coleman, who is majoring in Spanish for the health professions at Marquette and working this summer with UD mentor Regina Wright, associate professor in the School of Nursing. "The chance to visit Delaware and see what the East Coast has to offer – this is a good research school. The McNair Program gives a lot of students hope."

McNair is one of four federal TRIO Programs at UD. All support the academic potential of students who might not otherwise consider or be able to afford college, graduate school or doctoral-level studies. The McNair Program is geared toward college students preparing for doctoral studies. Student Support Services offers support and assistance to help college students earn their bachelor's degrees, and Upward Bound and Upward Bound Math-Science help eligible high school students prepare for success in college and a career.

These visiting scholars were recruited through UD's McNair Program and its partnerships with other TRIO institutions. They participate in the summer seminars, workshops and activities designed for UD's McNair Scholars and have met with graduate students to hear the nitty-gritty of graduate life, learn how they found support for their studies, and talk about life in Delaware.

Careful planning goes into all of that and Matthias Seisay, interim director of UD's TRIO programs, says the students have responded well to these new connections.

"The amount of effort put into getting these visiting scholars here is nothing compared to the determination they show on a daily basis," he said. "I see their interaction with their colleagues – UD's McNair Scholars – as the beginning of lasting relationships within what I call a ‘community of scholars.’"

Faculty research mentors

Each is paired with a faculty research mentor, who provides invaluable insight into their field of interest. Among the 10 mentors serving this summer is Jean-Philippe Laurenceau, Unidel A. Gilchrist Sparks III Chair in Psychological and Brain Sciences, who worked with visiting scholar Rosmeiry Valera of Bloomfield College.

"As a first-generation college student and member of a group that is traditionally underrepresented in doctoral programs, I thought about what I would have wanted in a research mentor when I was in college preparing for the transition to graduate school," Laurenceau said. "First and foremost, I tried to express to Rosmeiry in words and behaviors that she was welcome and belonged here at UD, my department, and my research lab. I introduced her to my department chair and other faculty in my department.

"From the very beginning, I had her get involved with my current doctoral students and the activities that they engage in, which happened to include attending the dissertation defense of one of my doctoral students. I sat down with her and brainstormed potential research questions that she could address with data from our current research projects and also take some ownership of. We conducted data analyses together and worked to understand and interpret the findings.

"All of this takes a lot of time and effort, but this is the kind of thing I would have wanted and believe that McNair Scholars need and deserve."

Opportunity

The program is getting great reviews.

"The University of Delaware has lots to offer," said Anyelo Almonte of Bloomfield College, who hopes to pursue graduate study in management information systems. "I can see more opportunity here. And it creates momentum going into my senior year."

Dianne Wade, an English major at Southern Nazarene University, said she "stalked" her mentor – Siobhan Carroll, associate professor of English – before arriving on campus in June. She read her background and explored the focus of Carroll's study and writings.

"I really like this experience," she said. "It is good to be able to work under somebody whose work you like."

The visiting scholars get a lot of practical insight, too, from those who have walked the walk.

Among the seminars on their schedule are primers on everything from research methods, prep for the GRE exam, social networking, stress management, resume writing, applying to grad school, applying for funding, and presenting research. They will participate in the Undergraduate Research Forum on Aug. 11.

Value of connections

They met one Monday for breakfast with a panel of UD grad students, some of whom came to Delaware from far-flung places with few resources. Panelists talked about why they chose Delaware, how they plugged into helpful networks, and offered many suggestions on where to find financial support.

Cesar Caro, a doctoral student in physics and the incoming president of the Graduate Student Government, said connecting with the community is an important part of the graduate experience. He said UD doesn't just give lip service to cross-disciplinary collaboration – it is a meaningful and authentic component, with a lot of intellectual freedom.

Mohamed Bah of Guinea, who is pursuing his doctorate in material science and engineering and has served as president of the UD Black Graduate Student Association, agreed.

"You can go across the hall at the lab and say, 'I have this issue, can you help me?' People are really open to that," Bah said. "If you want something, ask for it. People are willing to lend a hand."

They also heard from doctoral students Cynthia Rivas from South Central Los Angeles (disaster science), Barbara Romero of Peru (molecular biology and founder of UD's Hispanic-Latino Graduate Student Association), Jehnae Linkins (health sciences) and Ugochukwu Nsofor (electrical and computer engineering) and master's student Daniel Chazi Capelo of Equador (bioinformatics).

The students stay in UD housing along with UD's McNair Scholars and get enough of a stipend to cover expenses, allowing them to focus on their studies without need for a summer job. They also have the chance to apply for research funding, which gives them experience with that process.

Along the way, they make connections that would never otherwise happen.

"It helps being in a cohort of like-minded people," said Shannon Marshall, a UD McNair Scholar, "people who want to do research and better themselves."

Coleman said she was in her room one afternoon when UD McNair Scholar Nadisha Downs stuck her head in the door. They talked awhile and Downs invited her home to meet her family in Wilmington.

"That was cool," Coleman said. "She brought home a complete stranger."

Program leadership

Leadership has come from Kim Saunders, former executive director of UD's TRIO programs, Seisay, and April Davison, summer program assistant and a doctoral student in urban affairs and public policy.

"Having the opportunity to coordinate this diversity student recruitment initiative in collaboration with the graduate office has been an exciting emerging vision come true and will serve as my final imprint to increase diversity student success at UD," said Saunders, who left UD this month to become assistant dean of graduate admissions at the University of Maryland-Baltimore.

"I'm glad UD is offering a program to attract non-local graduate students to the campus," said Davison, who is from Dallas, Texas. "Geographic diversity enriches the campus by bringing in regional perspectives and talents. I hope by the end of the summer the visiting scholars are able to understand why the programs and research opportunities at UD are unique and how they can benefit from the resources here."

Ann Ardis, senior vice provost, had high praise for the pilot program.

“Dr. Saunders and Matthias Seisay have deep professional ties with the national McNair Scholars leadership network, and they were able to draw on this inter-institutional alliance in designing the recruitment plan for this pilot project early this spring on a very aggressive timeline,” she said.

She also saluted the "fabulous team of faculty mentors," which in addition to Carroll, Laurenceau and Wright included: Nerissa Brown (accounting and management information systems), Mary Dozier (psychological and brain sciences), Randall Duncan (biological sciences), Angelia Seyfferth (plant and soil science), Anna Papafragou (psychological and brain sciences), and Gang Wang (management information systems).

"This pilot program is clearly an example of the University of Delaware’s effort to showcase the importance of extending educational opportunities to young people, regardless of family or social backgrounds,” Seisay said. "It’s about exposing them to the career opportunities that open up through graduate-level education and research training.”

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