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Where Are the Minority Ph.D.'s? In Tampa, Actually

October 27, 2008

TAMPA -- One by one they took to the stage to receive their plaques, each story seemingly more compelling than the last. The single mother with four kids. The young man who had lived in a friend's car for a spell. The cancer survivor whose parents had died when he was four years old.

The “graduation” ceremony at the Institute on Teaching and Mentoring, the 15th of which took place here last weekend, is the most striking element of one of the most unusual gatherings in higher education, where nearly 1,100 minority doctoral candidates and recent Ph.D. recipients convene to learn how to prepare for a career as a professor, to network and, perhaps most importantly, to exhort each other to keep going.

The meeting is not all sunshine and roses; sessions at which the graduate students talk about their experiences with faculty advisers or administrators unaccustomed to dealing with people of black, Hispanic, American Indian and Hawaiian Native/Pacific Islander descent, or about being the only non-white face in their academic departments or programs, can turn into gripe sessions that sometimes make it seem as if very little has changed in the culture of higher education.

But for people (including, for instance, jaded higher education reporters) who've long since grown weary of national debates about affirmative action and assertions from colleges that minority candidates for their faculty positions are hard to find, the Institute on Teaching and Mentoring is a balm.

At table after table, and in session after session, more young professors and would-be faculty members of color than you're likely to see anywhere else in any one place offer each other tips, formally and informally, about how to write grant proposals and prepare for the tenure process. They brainstorm about and critique each other's research projects and dissertation topics, and share advice about how to keep their heads up when the inevitable clouds roll in. And scores of faculty mentors and college recruiters share their insights with the minority scholars who may one day be their colleagues.

To the white professors who attend the meeting as mentors and the several dozen college recruiters who come to find potential faculty candidates, the institute is a revelation. “When we’re talking about diversifying our faculty, we constantly hear from the departments, ‘These individuals aren’t out there,'" said Jeff Abernathy, vice president and dean of the college at Augustana College, in Illinois, who attended the institute for the first time this year. “A chill runs up your spine when you see so many excited young people going after their Ph.D.’s, and you realize that what we in the academy have been trying to do for the last 20 years is finally starting to be realized.”

The Institute on Teaching and Mentoring is sponsored by the Compact for Faculty Diversity, a coalition of graduate support programs for underrepresented students run by the Southern Regional Education Board (State Doctoral Scholars Program), the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, the National Institutes of Health's Bridges to the Professoriate program), the National Science Foundation's Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Minority Ph.D. Program, and the U.S. Department of Education's Ronald E. McNair Program. (The SREB manages the overall problem, led by Ansley Abraham, who directs the regional board's own doctoral scholars program.)

Despite the institute's success -- in the invitation-only program's 15-year history, more than 700 of its participants have received doctorates, and hundreds more are in the pipeline -- it remains one of the better-kept secrets in higher education. While some institutions have been participating in it for nearly the program’s entire history, others are just discovering it. Louisiana State University has turned out dozens of minority Ph.D. candidates through the SREB State Scholars Program, for instance, but the University of Louisiana at Lafayette had its first grant recipient just last year, and this year has added several more.

The faculty members who attend the institute are, by and large, true believers, many of them people, like Thomas Kutzko, a University of Iowa mathematician, “from the cohort of those folks in the ‘50s and ‘60s who have memories of the historic [civil rights] struggle and don’t want to retire in a divided country,” as he put it. For many of them, the institute is an inspiration, a chance to “get the juice to go back and fight for the things we need” to “change the face of my profession,” said Ann Redelfs, a professor of computing at Rice University.

If the institute and the various grant programs under its umbrella are a “spiritual endeavor” for the established faculty members who serve as mentors to the doctoral candidates, as Kutzko described it, they are that and much more to the doctoral scholars themselves, providing not just inspiration but much more practical and mechanical advice about moving through the foreign and mysterious environment that the academy often seems to be.

For all the practical advice offered in many of the formal sessions (and of course the financial support they get through the SREB, Sloan, McNair and other grant programs), what many of the students say they get most from the institute is inspiration, seeing others like them who have run the gauntlet and made it – to the Ph.D., a first teaching job, even to tenure.

Some of that inspiration is passed on in casual tête-a-têtes in the hotel lobby, and in the telephone calls and pep talks that unfold in the months after the meeting among those who’ve met at the institutes. But perhaps more than anything else, the power of the gathering emerges at the dinner at which the institute honors those who have received Ph.D.'s since the last meeting.

Doing the ceremony justice is not easy with the words normally available to a journalist, because describing the recipients' brief comments and the reactions they received doesn’t quite capture the raw emotion of the moment, which feels like a cross between a normal graduation and a revival meeting (and not just because nearly half of the recipients thank God for their good fortune and perseverance).

But let’s give it a try.

The event starts off with a bit of tough love. The emcee, Dewayne Matthews -- a Lumina Foundation for Education vice president who was among a small group of higher education leaders who helped create the institute in the early 1990s -- invites the audience to honor those in the crowd who have finished their doctoral coursework but not their dissertations. But Matthews urges them to contain their applause to “one clap” – holding out the full cheer for “next year,” when they’re ready to join the parade of full Ph.D.'s they are about to honor.

Elizabeth Avery Gomez is the first up (the order is determined alphabetically), and the single mother of four kids sets the tone with her matter of fact description of her doctoral studies at New Jersey Institute of Technology. Rebecca Baerga brings the house down with her tale of the small army of family members she invited to watch her dissertation defense at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey ("You know Puerto Ricans, we bring everybody"). Her mom "barely speaks English," Baerga says, "but before I even started, she was crying."

Lynne Gleiber's story provokes a few tears of its own. She recalls the late night telephone call in 2005 in which Abraham of SREB sent “encouragement … pouring over the phone” to stick with her doctoral studies. “I told him I’d do it come heck or high water,” Gleiber says, quickly adding, with dramatic pause, that those words “would come back to haunt me.”

Because late that summer, Gleiber recounts that, having returned to her home town of New Orleans, she was among the many driven from her home by Hurricane Katrina. The hurdles did not stop there; with her dissertation within reach, she says, her adviser died. Yet at the memorial service for her fallen mentor, Gleiber was picked up again, as another faculty member at the University of Maryland at College Park stepped in to help get her across the finish line.

“Stick with it, you’re going to get done, you’re going to make it,” she exhorts those in the audience prepared to follow her.

Julio Ortiz was “really was not supposed to be here,” he says. “My parents passed away when I was four,” and he later overcame cancer. But, as with many of the young people in the audience, someone -- in his case Catherine Lyons, assistant dean for educational equity at Pennsylvania State University's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences -- “approached me when I was an undergrad, ‘just because,’ ” having spotted something that made her think he had the spark to go someplace he’d never imagined for himself.

“It changed my life in more ways than you can imagine,” says Ortiz, who received his Ph.D. in information sciences and technology from Penn State in August.

Though many of the tales had their share of woe, virtually all of them are presented with humor born of the pride of accomplishment.

“My family used to call me a little boy from Jamaica who would probably never amount to anything,” said Craig O'Connor, who earned his Ph.D. in genetics at the University of Connecticut. “You know what they call me now?” he asked.

In unison, the crowd roared its reply: “Doctor!”

 

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