Web Exclusives

Perspectives on grad-student diversity

Current students share their views

By W. Raymond Ollwerther ’71
Published in the December 14, 2011, issue


René Flores GS

 
René Flores is a third-year doctoral student in sociology and a former president of the Latino Graduate Student Association.  
 

Statistics show that the numbers of applications, offers, and acceptances for Latino/Hispanic students entering Princeton’s doctoral programs this year are up substantially from five years ago. How do you look at this change?

I think those numbers are certainly encouraging. The growth in the number of Hispanic graduate students appears to be coming from a higher yield, which suggests that successful Latino students are finding Princeton to be more and more appealing as a place where they can be successful and thrive. You can also see a similar spike in the yield for African-American students last year.  

I think part of the reason why this is happening is due to the activities of the graduate school’s Office of Academic Affairs and Diversity. In particular, Dean Karen Jackson-Weaver ’94 has been a tireless leader in trying to foster a more welcoming environment for talented students of all different backgrounds.   

Her office organizes recruitment trips to universities across the country, and also hosts a yearly event where admitted minority students are invited to campus to get more information about the University from current graduate students and faculty members. The message for them is clear and powerful. The idea is that a Princeton education is within reach of all talented and hard-working students, regardless of your background. And that if you come here you will not be “lost at sea,” but you will find a support network.  

I think sometimes students worry about feeling isolated or not welcome at a place like Princeton. This is probably connected to the common portrayal of Ivy League institutions in popular culture. Sometimes, after attending diversity panels, students have approached me to ask if it would be safe for them to live here. Unfortunately, these are very real concerns for some students.

What about the role of graduate students?

I think that graduate students have done their part. The Black Graduate Caucus has been very active on campus for years, and it served as an inspiration for the creation of the Latino Graduate Student Association (LGSA) a few years ago. Our first name was Princeton University Latino Graduate Association, or PULGA, which means “flea” in Spanish. While it may sound colorful, it also reflects the feeling that some Latino graduate students had of being part of an invisible group on campus. At LGSA, we host events throughout the semester intended to create a friendly atmosphere for graduate students. As you know, life for graduate students can be challenging and isolating, so we try to create a sense of friendship and camaraderie. We believe that if students feel they are part of a community, they will thrive academically.

I also want to say that, while these numbers are encouraging, we also have to keep in mind that out of 623 new Princeton graduate students, there are only 31 Latino and 19 African-American students. In other words, incoming students are still experiencing a campus that does not look like the rest of the country. That’s the real challenge for the future: What to do about it, so that all this talent coming out of our country’s colleges is not wasted.

How did you come to Princeton?

I graduated from UC Berkeley in 2007 with highest honors with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on international migration and political xenophobia. After working as a research assistant for some time, I realized I wanted to go back to academia. I wanted to do rigorous research that had the potential to impact public policy. While I was fortunate to have other options, the sociology department at Princeton was clearly at the top of my list from the beginning. Not only does it concentrate some of the leading scholars in the field, including my adviser Edward Telles, but it also has a strong reputation for having a very collegial environment.

A year before applying to graduate school, I began emailing LGSA members about my intention to come to Princeton. They didn’t know anything about me, but from the beginning they took me very seriously and took the time to answer my multiple questions. That really impressed me. When I came to visit the campus, I stayed in the house of the then-LGSA treasurer.  

Every year I get a few emails from Latino students scattered across the country who see my profile on my department’s website and feel comfortable asking me questions about the application process and my experiences at Princeton. 

During my time at Princeton, I have served in different capacities at LGSA: secretary, vice-president, and president. I was the president last year (2010-2011). Without a doubt, I have to say that I have met some of my best friends on campus through the club.

Liz Johnson GS

Liz Johnson is a fourth-year graduate student in molecular biology. She is a former president of the Black Graduate Caucus and is vice president of the Wesley L. Harris Scientific Society, a group that focuses on supporting the development of minority scientists. 

How attractive is Princeton to graduate students of color, compared to its peers?

I feel that in terms of the Department of Molecular Biology, Princeton is becoming increasingly attractive to graduate students of color. Princeton is becoming more visible to students of color through the efforts of Dr. Alison Gammie’s office (Diversity Programs and Graduate Recruiting for molecular biology and the genomics institute). I believe the more students of color that come through Princeton, the more likely the students are to spread the word that Princeton is an accessible place that provides a stimulating intellectual environment with a genuine focus in developing young scientists. Students who participate in the summer program and graduate students currently in the program are able to be ambassadors for the program, and competitive prospective students seem to really trust the perspective of students who they believe to have shared experiences. For example, while recruiting at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), I could see the look of relief in a student’s face when they could candidly ask me, “Is Princeton really a place that would be supportive for students of color?” and I can tell them from experience that Princeton does provide an excellent educational environment for those that are passionate about molecular biology. They tend to believe you – we have had recruits who were applying to every top-tier molecular biology program except Princeton, and convinced them to add Princeton to the list after face-to-face contact. 

How do you view the University’s efforts to attract and support a diverse group of grad students? 

Although I have a lot of contact with graduate students of color from other departments from serving and leading the Black Graduate Caucus board for my first three years at Princeton, I only have a secondary opinion of the support of graduate students of color across different departments. However, I can say that the commitment and effectiveness of recruiting/support networks is not equal across the graduate school. I definitely have seen struggles and triumphs of my colleagues in different departments in creating environments conducive to diversity at the graduate school.  

Our department is truly doing its best in trying to attract and support a diverse group of graduate students. I think it is important to create multiple support networks, and this is apparent now. There is a great deal of support from the faculty, which I believe to be the nature of graduate sciences in our department in general.  

Currently there are enough graduate students of color in the department that the younger graduate students have access to advice on how to navigate the day-to-day issues of being a graduate student of color.  

There are societies on campus for support of graduate student life, such as the Wesley L. Harris Scientific Society and the Black Graduate Caucus, that have goals to support both the academic and emotional aspects of completing a Ph.D. in the sciences. The department also has supported the gathering of black students in our department in an informal setting (my apartment complex), so that all years of study can give advice to each other and discuss potential issues faced specifically by being a student of color.  

Dr. Gammie, my thesis adviser, and the members of my thesis committee are some of the main reasons why I can recommend Princeton to prospective students of color. Their support and dedication to educating students from day one until graduation is key in creating a scientific environment comprised of diverse backgrounds. I can tell a student that once they come to Princeton, they won’t be forgotten as they go through challenging times.  

How did you decide to come to Princeton, and what has your experience been like since your arrival?    

My decision to come to Princeton was highly influenced by a visit that Princeton professors made to Spelman College, my undergraduate institution, where I happened to be giving an oral presentation on my senior thesis project. Professor David Botstein, Dr. Gammie, and science librarian Steve Adams made an excellent case for coming to Princeton. What really spoke to me was that through their words and actions, I knew that the Department of Molecular Biology was committed to training young scientists to become future leaders in their fields. After narrowing down schools, it was the positive feeling I got from the Princeton faculty through subsequent lunches, visiting weekends, and emails that convinced me to attend Princeton over Vanderbilt or Harvard, despite the lack of students of color in the department as compared to other institutions.   

When I came to Princeton I was immediately able to develop support networks. Dr. Gammie has served as a mentor to many minority students in the department, and her dedication to teaching and scientific rigor truly has helped me develop in my graduate studies. Faculty members have been wonderful with their time and advice on both science and career development. Additionally, through the support of the Office of Diversity led by Dean Karen Jackson-Weaver ’94, I have been able to serve on the board and lead the University’s Black Graduate Caucus (BGC). Through the support of the engineering school and Professor William A. Massey ’77, I also have had the privilege to serve on the Wesley L. Harris Scientific Society (WLHSS) board – a group that focuses on supporting the development of minority scientists.  

The BGC and WLHSS, and the support these groups get from the University, are a great example of how creating networks can really support the development of a rich and diverse intellectual environment. For WLHSS, we have monthly meetings to discuss the research project of one of our members. Periodically, the interactions at these meetings have developed into highly productive collaborations. Moreover, the BGC and WLHSS provide a safe space to talk about the challenges of being a minority scientist in an environment like Princeton, where – when we entered the department – there were few (virtually none) students and faculty members of color.  

The number of African-American applicants to the grad school was down this year from the past two years, and the number of offers was as low as any of the past five years, according to graduate-school statistics. The yield – 73 percent – was the highest of any of the past five years, however. How do you look at these numbers? 

That is interesting. There are definite disparities in recruiting across departments. I am most familiar with how these statistics have affected students of color in the sciences. In terms of WLHSS, the only members who are first years have come from mainly from the life sciences in the department of molecular biology (1), quantitative and computational biology (1), neuroscience (1), and chemistry (1). Our membership is down from my first year (nine first-year students across the engineering school and the life sciences), and it’s a real issue.   

How important is it for faculty to get out of Princeton to participate in their departmental recruiting efforts? 

It is very important. My decision to come to Princeton ultimately was based on the faculty members that I interacted with at Spelman and faculty interactions during the graduate-program interview process. The interactions I had with the faculty were so inspiring and really got me excited about attending graduate school at a place that had so many resources. I was so excited that I begged the faculty at Spelman to start a journal-reading course based on the discussions I had with Princeton faculty during their visit.  

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