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Grant renewal strengthens support for underrepresented graduate students

By : Katie Ellis

Binghamton University’s Graduate School will strengthen its efforts to recruit, mentor and retain minority students in science, math and engineering with the recent renewal of a National Science Foundation Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) grant.

The renewal brings just over $1 million to Binghamton over the next five years — a major increase over the original $306,000 granted in 1999. The grant’s initial goal is to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in science, math and engineering who receive doctoral degrees. The ultimate goal is to provide support to underrepresented minorities throughout their graduate school program so they will be prepared to enter the professoriate upon earning their doctoral degrees.

The grant will enable Binghamton to offer extra workshops, bring in panelists on topics that provoke discussion and provide professional development opportunities to graduate students, said Nancy Stamp, dean of the Graduate School.

“The University is really committed to this initiative,” she said. “This is a training grant for graduate students and it really helps us. The students gain expertise in their disciplines, but they also receive professional development support.

“This is something we’ve wanted to build here for some time, and now we’ve got the resources to do so,” she added.

“Highest on my radar is helping these students get through their research, during the summer in particular, and provide them with professional development opportunities,” said John Kilmarx, associate dean of the Graduate School.

“In addition, one of the goals of this renewal period is to create stronger institutional cultures that will promote the goals of the NSF even after funding has run out,” Kilmarx said. “One of the challenges is to institutionalize these cultures of support for all of our underrepresented students.

One way Binghamton will do that is by bringing Fernando Guzmán, associate professor of mathematics, into the fold. Guzmán and the Department of Mathematics have a suc-cessful track record for recruiting minority graduate students, having made use of the Clark Fellowship program and AGEP funds in the past. Guzmán will serve as a faculty mentor and recruiter under the AGEP grant.

“The way I see it is, we will be expanding on what we’ve done in the math department as far as recruiting minorities,” Guzmán said. “Math is one area where the number of women and minorities entering the field is the lowest, yet we’ve been fairly successful. I’ll be using this experience to work with people in other science and engineering disciplines covered by the AGEP grant.”

Guzmán said there are three areas he will concentrate on: working with other departments to help with recruiting; work-ing to build relationships that encourage retention once students are here; and placing graduates with doctoral degrees in the academic world by mentoring them during their time at Binghamton.

It’s important to foster strong relationships with students, he said. “In math, we have a very close, personal contact with our graduate students. We don’t let them fall through the cracks, and our very good retention is in part due to that personal contact.”

To place graduates in the academic world will require pro-fessional development. The AGEP grant provides support for Binghamton to send PhD candidates to conferences in their disciplines. “We’ll have them present at conferences and go to other schools where they’ll be in contact with other faculty in their disciplines,” said Guzmán. “This will show them that there is so much more to being a professor than just teaching.”

Stamp said such experiences are vital. “Nationally, what we’re trying to do is help students develop a camaraderie that provides a natural support group beyond their department and across campus,” she said. “It will also serve as a network once they leave here.”

Guzmán sees his new role as a natural extension of what he’s already been doing for his department. “For me, it’s more like taking the experience I’ve gained here in my 10 years of recruiting graduate students and extending it beyond the math depart-ment,” he said. “In addition, I know my own background as an Hispanic will help. Having a role model will be something positive for the students.”

Donna Ramirez is already an AGEP success story. A doctoral candidate in psychology — specifically in behavioral neuroscience — she will finish collecting data this summer and complete her dissertation in the fall. AGEP funding has made a difference for her.

“It’s been really very helpful to me and actually funded my research in part,” Ramirez said. “I purchased some of my school books, and I received summer funding, which enabled me to finish my master’s thesis. I could concentrate all of my time on finishing up my experiments and writing and didn’t have to work. Without the grant, I wouldn’t have been able to finish up as quickly and as smoothly.”

Marvin Francis, a doctoral student in materials engineering, and Jean Jolicoeur, a doctoral student in geology, are both Clark Fellows who have been supported through AGEP funding as well. Clark Fellows are underrepresented minorities who receive enhanced stipends, guaranteed funding periods, health insurance, full tuition, scholarships, summer support and special professional development activities.

The AGEP program dovetails with their Clark program, Francis and Jolicoeur said. “Mainly I get to go to the yearly Compact for Faculty Diversity conference,” said Francis. “It’s basically a conference that encourages underrepresented graduate students to enter the professoriate. It’s a different forum and a big net-working thing where there are presentations on topics like how to write a grant and how to get tenure.”

Jolicoeur added that the conferences provide a solid opportunity to learn. “I get to meet with scientists from all over the world and share my research with them and learn about theirs. It is very valuable,” he said.

AGEP grants have also been awarded to the other three SUNY University Centers, which allows for collaborative efforts. “It’s very unusual and likely one reason they’ve renewed the grant,” said Stamp. “We’re trying to build a consortium and make it a model.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08