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Graduate School seeks to attract minority students

Like other Ivy League institutions and academia at large, Princeton has a long and mixed record on racial diversity. Founded as a home of scholarship for affluent white men, the University has attempted a gradual transformation into a home for talented scholars of all colors and backgrounds.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the resolute mission of the Admission Office to recruit underrepresented minorities for the undergraduate student body. Despite similar aspirations at the Graduate School, however, only 6 percent of incoming graduate students in the last five years have been Latino, Hispanic, African American or American Indian.

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The Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) estimates that these students accounted for only 3 percent of the University’s total graduate-student enrollment this fall.

This lack of diversity has motivated the Graduate School to further redouble minority recruitment efforts. In the meantime, however, graduate students from underrepresented minorities currently enrolled at the University still face many challenges both inside and outside of the classroom.

Hurdles to attracting underrepresented minority students.

Karen Jackson-Weaver ’94 is in her first year as associate dean for academic affairs and diversity at the Graduate School’s Office of Diversity. She noted two main challenges her office is tackling to increase underrepresented-minority enrollment.

The University must first combat a “strong perception that Princeton is the kind of selective institution that does not have communities of color,” she said in an e-mail.

The Office of Diversity must also “help students understand that a Ph.D. can translate into something that will make a positive impact on the community, in the state and perhaps even the world,” she said, noting that more than 50 percent of African-American graduate students attend either business school or a master’s program in education, neither of which is offered at Princeton.

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Mark Robinson GS, a first-year anthropology Ph.D. candidate, explained that Princeton’s non-urban setting also deters some underrepresented minority students from attending as they decide between Princeton and peer institutions located in more diverse, urban settings. “My absolute fears about the town were realized, entirely: It’s as provincial as I thought it would be,” he said.

Other hurdles run deeper than perceptions. Sociology professor Patricia Fernandez-Kelly explained that there are also structural barriers that prevent more underrepresented minority students from rising through the ranks of academia, noting that for a large contingent of American youths, “part of being a minority is living in impoverished neighborhoods with bad schools with bad connections to institutes of higher education.” Since few minority students make it through the ranks of prestigious undergraduate programs, the selection pool for graduate programs is small.

Jackson-Weaver also cited a lack of generational knowledge for underrepresented minorities, who are less likely to have family members with advanced degrees, as these relationships can be valuable in navigating the intricacies of academia.

New tactics for age-old problems

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Jackson-Weaver has already implemented several new recruitment initiatives, and more are in the pipeline. Last November, the Office of Diversity held its first Preview Day, a program that aimed to bring to campus minority students whom University representatives had met at earlier national recruitment conferences. This April, the office hosted its first open house and invited regional institutions to bring prospective students to explore the possibility of pursuing graduate study at Princeton.

These efforts have not gone unnoticed. Jessica Maxwell GS, who is studying art and archaeology, said that her recruitment conference experience last fall was “fabulous,” adding that “I was kind of seduced by that weekend to come.”

Robinson echoed that his recruitment weekend experience at Princeton last year was “much better” than comparable events at other institutions, such as Yale’s, which he found “totally disorganized.” He explained that Yale does not provide the same interactions with deans and professors as Princeton does.

Religion and African-American studies (AAS) professor Eddie Glaude GS ’97 emphasized the importance of a department’s faculty for attracting diverse graduate students. Glaude said that the religion department’s “sustained commitment to diversity,” as well as the presence of renowned scholars of color such as Cornell West GS ’80, has helped attract many talented minority students.

The key to improving minority enrollment is instilling a “diversity-friendly departmental ethos,” Glaude said. “If the department is committed to diversity,” he reasoned, “then the graduate students will come.”

Elisha Smith GS, vice president of the Black Graduate Caucus (BGC) offered a slightly different take on this self-fulfilling cycle: “In order to have more [minority] students, I think we need more [minority] students,” she said.

Next year, the office plans to hold information sessions in major U.S. cities and two new conferences at Princeton to complement current recruitment programming. The goal of these programs is to show students that Princeton can be a good environment for minority students and to emphasize other benefits of the Graduate School, such as its small size and its record of helping students complete the Ph.D. program faster than at other schools.

Feelings of isolation

For minority students who do come to Princeton, however, there are unique difficulties settling in. Though “any graduate student has to navigate what it means to go through this peculiar ritual,” Glaude explained, “I suspect many graduate students of color are grappling with insecurities that are exacerbated by the paucity of numbers.”

Robinson reflected on feelings of “profound isolation” that are accentuated by racial divisions, though it is often a common experience for graduate students because of the independent nature of their work, divisions along departmental lines and career goals. “Sometimes I don’t feel like I can talk to [other graduate students] generally because I feel that our life circumstances ... are so different,” he said.

Maxwell noted that while the Office of Diversity shared minority enrollment statistics with prospective students at her recruitment weekend, she said, “[I did not feel] the magnitude of these statistics ... until I actually began to attend Princeton.”

Maxwell also agreed with Robinson, noting that “it’s difficult sometimes to find as many people as you would like ... with shared experiences.” She said she tries to combat this social isolation by being proactive in seeking out other minority students and by not limiting her social network to “people who look just like you.”

Nevertheless, she added, “sometimes those are the people with whom you have the most in common.”

Monica Trujillo GS, co-chair of the Latino Graduate Student Association (LGSA), said that feelings of isolation can be particularly difficult for students who are not used to being in such a distinct minority. Trujillo said that her own transition from growing up in Los Angeles to attending Penn was more difficult than coming to Princeton, but noted that “a lot of [Latino Students] who come right from California ... feel very homesick when they first come.”

All of the students interviewed agreed that student groups provide a useful tool for strengthening minority communities on campus. Maxwell and Robinson both attend BGC events regularly, and Maxwell said she feels that “the people of color that are within the Graduate School are very close and are very proactive about forming community amongst ourselves.”

The BGC serves several roles on campus, Smith explained, providing opportunities for socializing with other students, arranging interactions with professors and planning community service initiatives. The group also holds discussions for Princeton undergraduates interested in graduate school and helps with the Office of Diversity’s recruitment events.

The LGSA, Trujillo said, is “primarily a social organization” that was founded several years ago to “ameliorate some of the problems that come with adjusting to Princeton and create a close-knit community amongst the Latino students.” The LGSA also hosts networking events with faculty members and collaborates with the BGC on some events.

New to the graduate students this year is the Graduate Women of Color Caucus, which, Smith explained, aims to address “the needs of women in the academy who are trying to navigate this process [of attending graduate school].”

Not all students of color participate in the groups, Robinson noted.

Academic challenges

Isolation is not necessarily limited to graduate social life, but can in fact become part of the classroom experience for minority students. Trujillo said that “Latino and black students may view things differently than their white counterparts, and when they voice their opinions, sometimes their peers [think], ‘that’s not the way it is’ or they sort of discount their experiences and their perceptions.”

This engenders “a feeling of self-consciousness,” she said, noting that a friend, who is the only minority student in her department sometimes feels “very isolated” in her courses. Trujillo added that she has personally heard her peers say “racially insensitive things that can potentially be construed as perhaps slightly racist.”

Robinson said that socialization lessons that students must learn as they rise through academia can be easier for students from families with academic backgrounds, while many underrepresented minorities do not have this kind of support. He noted that graduate students who begin their postgraduate degrees already having “a familiarity with academic-social milieus, … cocktail-party talk and … relationships with editors [of academic journals]”have an advantage, adding that non-minority students are much more likely to enjoy these benefits.

Smith said that faculty networking events provided by the Office of Diversity and student groups can help students pick up some of these “tricks of the trade” for finishing graduate school transitioning into academia.

­Glaude noted that his own experience as a Ph.D. student was enriched by his “extraordinary cohort of peers.” His experience, however, was not typical, since he was one of five African-American graduate students in the religion department, which is “a lot” compared to the average in most departments, he explained.

Disparities also crop up in the critical arena of mentorship, through which graduate students are aided in rising through the ranks of academia by their relationships with faculty. “There has been talk among students of color that they find it really difficult to find mentors to connect with, and that some of their white counterparts come to grad school already with the connections and the relationships in place,” Trujillo explained.

Diversfying faculty

One way that the University works to improve opportunities for mentoring the next generation of academics is by aggressively recruiting minority professors. Glaude noted that the AAS program has attracted minority professors because it provides them with a unique community of scholars.

The University also offers departments a greater incentive to hire minority professors with its Target of Opportunity funding, through which departments have greater leeway in hiring new professors if they are from minority groups. Without this initiative, departments normally need specific permission from the administration to hire new faculty members.

But Fernandez-Kelly, who was raised and earned her first Ph.D. in Mexico, said that the notion that Princeton has many minority professors is a “very, very common misunderstanding” since many purportedly minority professors come from foreign countries where they had the opportunities of the majority, rising through the ranks of the upper or middle class with access to classical education.

Foreign-born professors “appear to be members of minority groups, but we are not,” she said, adding that “it’s a kind of smoke-and-mirrors situation.”

“While we nicely fill the role of ‘she looks Hispanic’ or ‘he looks African,’ ” she said, “it’s not clear that that fulfills the original intent [of hiring minority professors].”

But this situation is beginning to change, Fernandez-Kelly noted. The hiring of American-raised Latino professor Angel Harris in the sociology department, she said, is the type of new faculty hiring effort that represents underrepresented minorities in “an authentic way that universities would love to have more of.”

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