Asking for a level playing field

A stirring video

A headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education caught my eye. I read the story and clicked the link to a YouTube video created in 2013 by Sy Stokes, when he was a junior at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Stokes dramatically and powerfully conveys the failure of UCLA to attract, support and retain black male students. As the Chronicle article states, maybe Stokes’ numbers are off a bit, but that should not detract from the main message. Not enough black males are being recruited to university campuses. And we’re not adequately supporting those who come. As a result, these students feel invisible, marginalized and undervalued. Stokes is angry, and he has a right to be. I’m sad to think that the names of many other great public and private universities, including ours, could be substituted for UCLA’s. None of us are doing well enough.

As a dean who wants to do better, I’m frustrated—that our federal grant to support underrepresented students was terminated only a year after we were funded; that because of the Supreme Court’s 2003 decisions regarding admissions at the University of Michigan, we can’t use philanthropy to attract funding to recruit underrepresented males; and that, while previously we could use about one-third of our school-based tuition increase for financial aid, now it’s capped at 25 percent. Money isn’t everything, and recruitment isn’t the end of our responsibility, but money is necessary. I’m frustrated also that we too often can’t and won’t look beyond the usual markers of successful applicants (scores, grades and prestige of colleges attended) and be willing to take some chances on applicants and provide the support needed to produce success in graduate school. If I look at the situation and myself critically, I must conclude that I too could do more. Barbara

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  1. Helena

    What It’s Like to Play in the Field:

    Dear Dr. Rimer,

    As a minority and first-generation college student pursuing a master’s degree in public health, I truly appreciate your post. Yes, it is frustrating. My funds are always short, my resources limited, and the journey towards achieving higher education has been a struggle. However, there are several steps I have taken or were kindly pinpointed to me by others in this university that have helped me in this “adventurous challenge,” and I would like to share and encourage that these continue. When resources are low, creativity and compassion must be high:

    1. Find mentors: My parents never went to college, so I cannot ask them for help on anything related to school, or even several important matters outside of school. What I have found helpful in my program is the assignment of advisors and mandatory meetings every semester. Not everyone will develop a natural connection with whom they’re assigned, but the initial connection towards someone successful is a great start, and even better if that advisor has your similar background and passions. You can always ask your advisor to link you to others who have more comparable aspirations. For me, my advisor has been a blessing. I am hoping that the faculty body will increase in diversity, because I know that personally, when I see an institution comprising professors of various cultures, I see a campus of progress, tolerance, and success. Additionally, when I first arrived here, I sought people who had similar interests to mine and had more experience. It takes a while to find them (in my experience from moving around, it usually takes me at least a year to develop a solid relationship with someone I trust), but once I started identifying these trusted people throughout my lifetime, they have become part my life raft and keep me afloat. I am reminded that mentors do not have to be within the university system or formally made. They can be found at running clubs, pub get togethers, volunteer agencies, etc.

    2. Know your resources: Upon admission, I was emailed a memorandum and summary of links to the UNC Graduate School Handbook, Resource Guide, and other useful tidbits. Yes, I am sure through much effort, each of us admitted would have eventually stumbled onto each website. However, the warm welcome letter and summary of all the resources onto one page saved me time, and the organized summary mitigated the overwhelming information on the web that every student new to graduate school experiences. Also, the blast in orientation about Campus Health Center and CAPS have been valuable as well.

    3. Find people with your similar experiences: The UNC Graduate and Professional Student Federation and Minority Student Caucus have held events where I was able to meet people with similar concerns and learn of their coping strategies. I appreciated the first-generation college student networking event and the diversity workshop. Please keep highlighting these hidden gems.

    4. Keep as many resources geared towards minorities and first-generation college students as possible, in play: I have heard positive things about Carolina Firsts for first-generation college students at the undergraduate level. I would love to see something like this for the graduate level. I am proud that UNC recognizes the unique struggles we face and provides support.

    5. Keep talking about the issue, especially among faculty: I have met several compassionate faculty along the way who answered several of my questions and pointed me in the right direction before I became a Tar Heel. I believe awareness leads to discussion, discussion leads to ideas, and ideas could lead anywhere! With time, ideas and people find the right mix towards solutions.

    6. Always remember the beginning, and keep the ending in mind: This is especially true when I’m worrying more than usual about school finances and figuring out all the systems to navigate in this new experience. When I was admitted to this fine institution, I recall Chancellor Folt say, “Remember the wonder and determination that you feel right now on your first day. Carry that every day, and there’s really nothing that isn’t possible.” I repeat that to myself during rough times, and I keep my eye on the end goal because “As long as you have a vision larger than yourself, everything will be alright.”

    Thank you for your blog post.

    Best,
    Helena Chung

    • Barbara Rimer

      Helena, I am so appreciative of your comments. In fact, I am going to make a copy of your tips and share at orientation and also point people to your comment on blog. Having your firsthand experiences and tips from lessons learned is even more compelling than anything I can say, given how many years ago I last was a student. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences and what you have learned. Thanks for your comments also about graduate student resources. Whenever we have the opportunity to talk about student funding, I am the one who pipes up and says something on the order of…”That may be true for undergrads but we have nothing like that for graduate students.” Fortunately, our Chancellor is placing a high priority on obtaining funds for graduate students as part of the next fundraising campaign. Personally, I know how hard it is to put the money together, and that’s why we spend a lot of time, collectively, finding donors and asking them to support our students. and why it was so frustrating when HRSA abruptly terminated all the schools of public health stipends only a short-term after refunding us. You have self-awareness, grit, determination and resilience. We are fortunate to have you as a student. Barbara

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