How to Retain Women of Color and Indigenous Women Grad Students

Kimberly D. McKee and Denise A. Delgado highlight three crucial components that can help such students not only survive but also thrive at their institutions.

May 1, 2020
 
 

When we decided to collaborate and co-edit Degrees of Difference: Reflections of Women of Color on Graduate School, we did so out of a commitment to open the conversations among women of color and indigenous women graduate students that frequently occur in hallways, over coffee and in the shadows of conferences. The collection is designed to center those exchanges and dispel the myth that we’re alone. When we first conceived of this project as graduate students, we wanted to make visible the ways our voices and experiences were routinely made invisible.

Our contributors’ essays reveal a collective voice and similarity of experience despite our many differences. And while Degrees of Difference was written primarily with current, former and prospective women of color and indigenous graduate and professional students in mind, the collection also offers departments and universities ideas about how they can better support us. Far too often, women of color and indigenous women find that isolation, due to a lack of community, impedes our ability to thrive, not just survive, at our institutions.

Recruitment and retention should be about creating a space for graduate students to succeed and letting them know the ways that departments and universities plan to support their academic and career goals. The need for better support has become more significant as we consider the effects of COVID-19 throughout society. The pandemic makes evident racial health disparities and other systemic inequities -- such as that not all Americans have the opportunity to work from home and low-income workers often have to brave public transportation to travel to their essential jobs. To pretend that higher ed is not affected by this global pandemic ignores the realities of faculty, staff, graduate students and undergraduates, who are experiencing the material effects of coronavirus.

Those effects may include recovering from the coronavirus; caring for family or friends ill from the coronavirus; losing a family member, friend, colleague or student to the coronavirus or coronavirus-related illness; experiencing anti-Asian violence; negotiating economic precarity; and managing childcare and eldercare. At the same time, layoffs and furloughs, in addition to hiring freezes, will disproportionately impact staff and contingent faculty, whose contracts may not be renewed. And those staff members who are subcontracted employees in food or janitorial services, among other essential campus functions, face additional precarity due to lower wages and lower job security.

Graduate students on the academic job market will also experience the reverberations of hiring freezes. The transition to remote teaching already affected graduate students twofold: as students taking classes, preparing for exams or dissertating, and as instructors needing to rework their lectures and assignments to accommodate our new reality. This is in addition to their roles as siblings, parents and partners.

Here we offer suggestions drawn from Degrees of Difference that can help with the recruitment and retention of women of color and indigenous women graduate students. The contributors to our book illustrate the ways they have claimed their own space in the academy, and their essays reveal three crucial components: 1) encouraging the creation of community and mentoring networks, 2) demonstrating an intentional commitment to departmental inclusivity in the curriculum and the overall graduate program, and 3) offering transparent economic assistance and support.

Community and mentoring opportunities. Does the unit provide, or can it provide, more resources to support comprehensive exam preparation, prospectus and dissertation writing, job market navigation, and the publication process? Some departments do not explain how to create comprehensive exam reading lists, construct a dissertation committee or understand what to expect from one’s adviser. Policies on the frequency of conferencing and publishing are often not written anywhere, with peers and faculty members offering different feedback on those expectations.

These issues are key to the successful completion of a graduate degree, yet too often we rely on the assistance of a helpful mentor in the program to explain these rules/guidelines when they should be part of the handbook or curriculum. To further build community and openness, departments should establish formal programs that encourage peer mentoring within and between graduate student cohorts and mentoring between faculty members and graduate students. It’s important, however, for departments to understand that underrepresented faculty should not be the only ones solicited to support marginalized graduate students. That only contributes to the invisible labor of those faculty who already participate in this important professional development and community-building tool.

Departments should also ask themselves how they can work more effectively to share or encourage their graduate students to participate in professional development opportunities at the college and university levels as well as those offered by (inter)disciplinary national organizations. For example, the Association of Asian American Studies provides opportunities for graduate students to connect with faculty mentors at their national meeting. Participating in that offering supported Kimberly as she completed her dissertation and navigated the job market. Mentorship, whether it is peer mentoring from someone further along in the program or mentorship from a faculty member, can do much to combat the stressors experienced by women of color and indigenous women.

As departments assess how they can better support underrepresented graduate students, they should connect women of color and indigenous women graduate students with resources like affinity groups for graduate students of color at their universities. We both participated in an organization on our campus designed for women of color graduate students as well as groups for our particular ethnic communities. Those spaces made clear that what we experienced within our own field was not unique, and we found commonalities because we were graduate students of color. Without these organizations, it is unlikely Degrees of Difference would exist today.

Curriculum and departmental support. To attract and retain women of color and indigenous women, departments should work toward recognizing and acknowledging the racism, xenophobia, misogyny and other forms of hostility those women encounter among faculty, staff, other graduate students and undergraduate students. Such biases also occur in fields like ethnic studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, where one might assume marginalized graduate students would find a more inclusive and supportive environment.

In addition, given the iterative nature of syllabi and curriculum development, departments should ensure that required readings are not only authored by cisgender, white men. When women of color and indigenous women read the syllabi and see that the material in the department is whitewashed, it only demonstrates the ways their voices and scholarship experience marginalization in the program and, more broadly, the field.

That said, while an inclusive curriculum shows a prospective student that the department cares about their concerns, departmental support is more than just a diverse curriculum. What also really matter are the policies and supports offered to those women experiencing hostile environments, sometimes with graduate student peers or faculty as perpetrators of that violence. Experiencing racism and/or sexism within graduate school is commonplace, and more departments need to have policies that address these issues. If a graduate student has a professor endorsing racist tropes in a classroom, and they go to their adviser to discuss the issue and are only told to keep their head down or just get through it, they’re sent a clear message that they don’t matter.

Transparent economic assistance. Graduate school is not only highly regulated but also filled with unwritten rules and unstated expectations. For those who are first-generation college students like Denise, that means limited access to inherited wealth and an extended family or friends with advanced degrees. Graduate and professional programs are expensive, and while many of us enter graduate programs with funding, that support often does not extend to summer stipends or monies available for regular conferencing. Nor do those funds necessarily cover emergency health issues and other unexpected financial burdens.

In many departments, graduate students rely on their peers to keep them informed on what programs and assistance is available. But unless you’re aware of whom to ask or what to look for, this knowledge may not be easily obtained. Explaining to those students how grants and fellowships work and keeping a documented list of what financial support is available outside the immediate program can do much to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety of graduate school. That can include clarifying that travel grants can be granted from multiple sources for the same conference, since some may not know how grants work.

Degrees of Difference centers the experiences of women of color and indigenous women that often are only shared as whispers in corridors. These conversations occur among friends in secret, as if one cannot be honest about how racial microaggressions, impostor syndrome and lack of familial or departmental support, to name just a few, affect their experiences navigating the academy. Women of color and indigenous women can and do succeed without the supports we’ve described in our book and this essay, but it is much more difficult, damaging and draining to do so. It's vital that higher education operate with even more intentionality moving forward in light of the global pandemic’s impact on people’s personal and professional lives. If colleges and universities truly interested in recruiting and retaining women of color in academia, these three fundamental steps can make all the difference.

Bio

Kimberly D. McKee is an associate professor in integrative, religious and intercultural studies at Grand Valley State University and author of Disrupting Kinship: Transnational Politics of Korean Adoption in the United States. Denise A. Delgado received her Ph.D. from Ohio State University and works as a case manager and trainer.

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