Project aims to improve retention of underrepresented minority students
A team project led by civil and environmental engineering doctoral candidate Jamie Clark (MS 17) aims to improve retention of underrepresented minority (URM) students in The Grainger College of Engineering. The project, Three-pronged Approach for Retention of Underrepresented Minority Students, will take advantage of existing relationships between URM registered student organizations (RSOs), faculty and administration to expand support systems for URM students and foster broader institutional change.
Although the number of URM students in the college has increased in recent years, the number is still a small percentage of the overall student population. Clark's project grew out of a need she and her peers saw for a stronger community among these URM students and a way for them to share concerns regarding diversity and inclusion with the administration.
Clark outlines three objectives in her proposal: build a network of mentorship between URM faculty, graduate and undergraduate students; connect the URM community with administrators who can implement institutional changes to improve retention of URM students; and educate the broader Grainger College community on issues of inclusion and diversity.
A mentorship network already in place between members of the Graduate Engineers Diversifying Illinois (GEDI) RSO and a group of URM faculty advisers will expand to include the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) RSO, which consists primarily of African American undergraduate engineering students. By strengthening these networks within the college, the team hopes to make it easier for URM students to successfully navigate their academic programs without feeling so alone, Clark said.
“Everything we’re experiencing as URM students at the graduate and undergraduate level … there are URM faculty who came before us and had similar experiences,” she said. “So if we don’t take advantage of that existing knowledge within our network, our individual experiences can drive us further into isolation instead of bring us closer together.”
In addition to expanding the mentorship network, GEDI and NSBE leaders will work to establish closer relationships with college administrators who have committed to support URM students and advance their concerns within Grainger College and the Graduate College.
“Currently, there’s no clear and consistent way for students – in general, not just URM students – to share and compile their experiences in a manner that is constructive,” Clark said. “As students, how do we take our negative experiences and transform them into positive institutional change that can help those who come after us?”
Clark’s proposal also includes a training workshop called My Voice, My Story, which will be offered to graduate students and faculty in Grainger College. Developed by Cornell University, the workshop is designed to teach participants how to listen and understand how exclusion and inclusion can affect the learning and research environment.
“The My Voice, My Story training sessions are really geared towards teaching people how to listen and how to support each other without getting defensive,” Clark said. “Having conversations on diversity and inclusion with people who don’t have the same background as you can be difficult because they don’t have the same frame of reference to process the information that you’re giving them, and vice versa.”
At the end of the one-year project, a written report identifying specific concerns regarding campus climate for URM students will be shared with the college administrators in order to foster change at the institutional level – with the ultimate goal of increasing URM retention.
“I started at U of I with a good number of incoming URM graduate students,” Clark said. “Most have had at least one experience in which they felt singled out for being a minority – some felt so unsupported in their programs that they, initially intending to get their Ph.D., left with a master’s. I feel that retention efforts are equally, if not more, important than recruitment. The burden of improving the experience of URM students should not fall solely on the students themselves. It is a team effort that requires support from individuals at every level within the college of engineering.”
The other members of the project team are GEDI president Lonna Edwards (Electrical and Computer Engineering), GEDI vice president and treasurer Mickeal Key (Neuroscience), GEDI Executive Board member Sasha Yamada (Electrical and Computer Engineering), former NSBE president Eliza Wright (BS 2020, Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering) and current NSBE president Jaden Gladden (Technical Systems Management).
Clark’s project is funded by Grassroots Initiatives to Address Needs Together (GIANT) program, part of the Grainger College’s new Institute for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access (IDEA Institute). The IDEA Institute was formed to “support scholarship, innovation, collaboration and leadership in the areas of inclusion, diversity, equity and access” for faculty, staff, students and the community. Under the direction of department of Electrical and Computer Engineering professor Lynford Goddard, the IDEA Institute seeks to support activities designed to foster a more inclusive campus.
“Diversity and inclusion are critical ingredients to a productive and collaborative university environment,” Goddard said. “They benefit our teaching and research missions in many direct and indirect ways.”
Goddard hopes that projects like Clark’s will enable the formation of a stronger university community with deeper mentoring relationships and avenues to share and embrace the vast knowledge and experiences of its students.
More information about the IDEA Institute, including other projects funded by the GIANT program, can be found at idea.illinois.edu.