Nine Ways To Attract Underrepresented Minority Students, Faculty To Purdue

Dec 16, 2015

Nine faculty-led teams at Purdue University are preparing to launch initiatives to recruit and retain underrepresented minority students and professors.
Credit Purdue University

In addition to prepping for finals and wrapping up the fall semester, the first two weeks of December have been a whirlwind for the faculty, students and administrators whose diversity projects will be funded through Purdue University’s Diversity Transformation Award, or DTA, program.

Nine faculty-led initiatives represent the university’s first round of initiatives designed to improve recruitment, enrollment and retention of underrepresented minority students, faculty and staff.

Mechanical Engineering head Anil Bajaj wants to get underrepresented minority high school students excited about his field.

Among his team’s plans are scholarships for kids to attend summer camps on campus, as well as faculty visits to schools in Gary, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis.

“If you have more opportunities to interact with students, you have more opportunities to influence them,” he says. "To significantly increase the number of underrepresented minority students we also have to make them feel they can think of this as their second home.+

In the College of Agriculture, graduate services specialist Tyson McFall says it’s easy to recruit high school students who visit campus. The obstacle is parents who’ve never been to college.

“If you’ve never been to college, you don’t know what resources are out there," she says. "You don’t know the amount of scholarships or how funding works, and what that all means.  All you think is, ‘It’s going to be really expensive and I’m going to be in debt forever.’” 

McFall and Associate Dean and Director of Academic Programs Marcos Fernandez say the solution is to immerse parents in a 24-hour "college experience" on the West Lafayette campus.

"You're showing them the opportunities that their students would see if they come here," Fernandez says. "Secondly, you're trying to build a level of trust with the institution, and more importantly, with the individuals that are asking these parents and these families to entrust something dear and precious to them, and that's their son or daughter."

Graduate student recruitment is the focus of the College of Engineering.  Associate Dean of Graduate Education and Interdisciplinary Programs Audeen Fentiman says her team will augment its summer undergraduate research fellowship to strengthen connections and research opportunities between Purdue faculty and minority-serving institutions.

And Fentiman says researchers in the School of Engineering Education will study those students once they’re on campus. 

We’ll want to understand what mentoring we need to give them," she says. "What skills do we need to help them develop in order to be more successful with their research?"

Assistant Dean for Agricultural Research and Graduate Education Shawn Donkin is spearheading a plan to build on existing research and faculty/student exchanges between Purdue and historically black colleges and universities.

Biomedical sciences professor Susan Mendrysa is leading a project targeted at giving recent minority college graduates hands-on experience in research and upper level courses needed to qualify for graduate school.

Other projects aim to attract graduate students from underrepresented minority groups, thus creating a pool of candidates for faculty positions.

Two faculty members are relying on DTA grants to shore up minority recruitment programs that once thrived, but have languished in recent years.

Chemistry professor Jean Chmielewski says both faculty and students recognize the number of underrepresented minority graduate students in the chemistry department has dwindled in recent years.

She says current students and those who've earned Purdue degrees want to find their successors.

They feel really strongly about going out and recruiting because there’s a better relatability factor,” she says. "Potential graduate students come to visit. They don't see anybody that looks like them. They don't feel comfortable. They're not going to come here."

History professor Dawn Marsh’s team plans to focus on Native Americans. Her grant will create post-doctoral fellowships to train tenure-track faculty, as well as establish a certificate in applied indigenous studies.

The research has shown that knowing the university recognizes Native American faculty is significant," Marsh says. "It sends a signal that the university is committed to diversity and they do recognize Native American culture.” 

Two initiatives led by psychology professors focus on measuring and improving the campus climate for different types of minorities.

Professor Margo Monteith says her team will develop videos and presentations to teach incoming students how to appear less culturally insensitive.

How do you most effectively confront others about their biased behavior so as to introduce to them the possibility of responding in other ways?" she says. "How do you not create backlash?”

Professor Deborah Rupp’s group wants to develop programs that increase awareness and acceptance of individuals whose race, gender orientation or disability may not be readily visible.  

“In addition to being part of a group that may face prejudice or stigma, they also have the added burden of whether or not to out themselves or conceal their identity," she says. "So there are health effects or stress effects, and then there are performance effects, emotional resources that could otherwise be deployed to ones' work or ones' study."

The nine initiatives were selected from 66 faculty submissions, no easy task says Dean of the Graduate School Mark Smith.

"We identified those that we thought somewhat covered the space of diversity," he says. "We also tried to pay attention to having our different colleges represented, and we had a lot of good proposals to choose from."

The DTA grants will be paid out as the programs are implemented during the next two years.