Beginning in fall 2020, incoming graduate students in the UCI School of Social Sciences have an opportunity to participate in a novel program aimed at retaining, training and graduating underrepresented minority Ph.D. students. The Enhancing Diversity and Equitable Inclusion Thriving in the Academy Program, spearheaded by Belinda Robnett, professor of sociology and associate dean of faculty development and diversity in social sciences, is funded by a $349,996, five-year grant from the UC-Hispanic Serving Institutions Doctoral Diversity Initiative (UC-HSI DDI).

“Racial-ethnic minority graduate students face unique challenges within the academy,” says Robnett whose research focuses on social movements and racial, ethnic, and gender disparities. “Studies show that nearly across the board, Latinx, African-American, and Native American graduate students are far more likely than are white graduate students to report feeling: research topic discrimination by faculty and students; less social inclusion within their department; less power in their department; like a minority in their department; that the teaching assistance that they do is less valued within their department; disrespected by the undergraduate students; and, disrespected by a faculty member in a class.”

Perhaps even more concerning are the high levels of Latinx, African-American, and Native American graduate students who have considered dropping out of their program as compared to their white counterparts, she adds. With her new program, Robnett aims to level the playing field by facilitating professional networks, research collaborations, institutional knowledge sharing, productive relationships with peer and senior mentors, and feelings of belonging – all proven tactics to help retain underrepresented groups.

The small, 15-20 student cohort style of the program will be key to its success, she adds, particularly as the inaugural group enters their graduate program remotely due to COVID-19. Each year throughout the five-year program, cohorts will attend eight professional development workshops focused on topics ranging from year-by-year graduate school expectations and career goals to selecting, pursuing, and presenting quality research and best job market practices. They’ll have access to grant writing resources – an activity paramount to a researcher’s success – and networking opportunities with a trained group of graduate student and faculty allies who will help them navigate the Tier 1 research university experience as well as professional conferences. Each summer, if they’ve participated fully, student participants will receive a $1,000 summer stipend to support their research activities.

Beginning in year two, the program will also feature an annual conference inclusive of other HSI institutions within and outside of the UC system, where they’ll get their first opportunity to present research and receive immediate feedback from faculty mentors both from the UC and elsewhere, says Robnett.

“By the end of their program, students will have four to five mentors from whom they can draw experience and expertise in navigating graduate school and beyond,” she says. “They’ll also benefit greatly from the sense of community they’ll forge through informative social events – online for now, but later in person - that offer suggested tools and strategies to address the unique challenges faced by underrepresented, racial ethnic minority students in the academy.”

By the program’s fifth year, she hopes to have more than 80 students in the program pipeline and double that number trained as allies among both faculty and graduate students in the social sciences and wider campus community.

“Each year, we’ll measure the program’s success against climate survey results from the prior year,” says Robnett. “We’ll also look at attrition rates and whether the program plays a role in reducing dropouts among underrepresented minority student participants. If we’re successful, we should also see an upward trajectory in enrollment and an overall feeling of belonging among a student group that historically faces imposter syndrome in graduate school.”

Funding from UC-HSI DDI will support the program for five years, during which time Robnett plans to apply for additional funding partners to expand the program and build on its successes. UC-HSI DDI aims to enhance faculty diversity and pathways to the professoriate for underrepresented students from California Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs). Robnett’s program is one of six UC projects to receive funding this year and the only one from UCI.

UCI became a federally designated Hispanic-serving institution in 2017, meaning that at least one-quarter of undergraduates identify as Latino and that half of all students receive financial aid. UCI also is designated as an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institution. 

Social sciences graduate students interested in this program should contact Belinda Robnett,

-Heather Ashbach, UCI Social Sciences


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