Belonging at a Predominately White Institution: Fostering the Growth of Underrepresented Scholars through Welcoming Spaces

By Rosaura Dominguez-Rebollar, Jessica S. Saucedo, Tatiana Elisa Bustos

As three Latinas representing Central and Mexican American peoples and first-generation doctoral students, we often feel pressure to assimilate to the culture inherent in academic spaces. Two of us (Jessica and Rosaura) love to wear colorful embroidered clothing to honor our Mexican roots. Within the Hispanic-serving institutions we attended, it was normal for Latinx students to display their cultural heritage in this way.

However, moving to the Midwest and starting graduate school at a predominantly White institution (PWI) made us question our choices. We are often hesitant to wear our embroidered clothing to campus, or to run errands in the surrounding neighborhoods, for fear of standing out or drawing too much attention. We’ve often felt the need to ask ourselves or others whether our clothing was, “too Mexican.”

Why are we so worried about looking “too Mexican?” More importantly, why do we feel the need to ask ourselves these questions at all?

As women of color at a PWI, it is often difficult to navigate a system that was not built for us. Each of us come from very diverse communities and grew up with strong attachments to our cultural heritage. When we moved out-of-state (i.e., Hialeah, New York City, Southern California) to the Midwest to attend a PWI for the first time, it was a culture shock. Luckily, as first years, we were invited to the Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP). AGEP welcomed us to a space that embraced us — our backgrounds, culture, and values — and did not attempt to change us.

In this piece, we share how AGEP created spaces for us and also built our capacities as scholars and professionals of color at PWIs.

Creating inclusive spaces in STEM

One of the first AGEP events we attended was a monthly learning community meeting, where we were able to connect to students from other colleges. This was impactful because it can be so challenging to make friends outside of your department in your first year. We shared meals and learned about scholarships, publication opportunities, and other professional development available, all free to members.

The learning community meetings gave us the chance to be in community, share meals and exchange ideas with other Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students without requiring us to disconnect from our cultural identities. Even now that we are in a pandemic, we’ve been attending these meetings virtually, which has maintained a sense of connection.

These meetings are deeply enriched in diverse scholarly work and careers involved with historically underrepresented groups.

During these learning meetings, we also get to see chalk talk presentations. A chalk talk is a low stress, 15-minute presentation opportunity to receive constructive feedback while strengthening presentation skills to communicate across broader audiences. We’ve seen friends present their academic milestones through chalk talks. Chalk talks have helped me (Tatiana) develop my comprehensive exams proposal because I was outlining a presentation. Further, chalk talks allow us to present and receive feedback on our ongoing research, which help foster us as scholars in a space where we know others have good intentions and without competition.

BIPOC scholars are welcome to present their ongoing research, some of these presentations being thesis or doctoral milestone projects.

One of the most impactful things about AGEP is how it integrates BIPOC students into its planning process.

All members are invited to participate in steering committees and shape AGEP in a way that benefits BIPOC students directly. As committee members, we’re able to make decisions about how to recruit, whether strategies are inclusive, and plan future events and opportunities.

Fostering professional development in STEM

Building a sense of belonging can sometimes come with building ownership within a group. For instance, AGEP offers opportunities to pay it forward to other graduate BIPOC students while giving us professional development opportunities. For example, we have been speakers on several graduate school panels to share our knowledge and experiences with visiting undergraduate McNair Scholars Program and AGEP conference students. These panels aimed to recruit candidates from underrepresented backgrounds across universities.

As McNair Scholars, we (Jessica and Rosaura) know how valuable these panels can be in building connections and raising concerns, so we were ecstatic to share our graduate school experience with current McNair scholars. We have been able to answer undergraduate students’ questions about graduate school honestly without the fluff. Tatiana has connected with potential students who worry about leaving predominantly Latinx communities to attend a PWI.

Supporting SROP’s events as panelists has helped us connect to undergraduates across the nation.

AGEP members are also encouraged to participate in the Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP) as coaches, mentors, and to support BIPOC undergraduate students from across the nation, as we’ve been supported.

Rosaura has had the opportunity to serve as SROP mentor, where she guided 15 students in writing their research and preparing a presentation from beginning to end. It was an especially rewarding experience, as she got the opportunity to mentor McNair Scholars from her undergrad institution, John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

We all have had opportunities to publish research briefs in AGEP’s research bulletin, Science Today. As editors for the bulletin (Tatiana and Jessica), we’ve strengthened our peer-reviewing skills, communication skills across different disciplines, and our writing skills for different audiences. Not only do we get to experience the publication process, but AGEP also works hard to disseminate our work to the public. Some AGEP members are invited to join the AGEP program director in Washington, D.C., where the research briefs are shared directly with funders to illustrate the breadth of our work and emphasize the importance of diversity of scholars.

AGEP Bulletin gets released every year and our committee carries out recruitment, revisions, design and publication.

Another way we’ve networked with students and early career scholars is at the Student Success Conference (SSC), which has allowed us to present upcoming and established projects to undergraduate and graduate students from across the nation. We have participated as reviewers for submissions, presenters, and evaluators for others’ presentations. These experiences have informed our work by eliciting feedback for ongoing manuscripts or research milestones.

Presenting has also provided an opportunity to assess community response to our research topics, integrating feedback on framework and conceptualization. The conference is inspiring because scholars are typically from underrepresented backgrounds with a diverse range of research in STEM and social behavioral sciences. In all our applications to other student leadership positions, we (Tatiana and Jessica) elaborate on what we’ve done with AGEP as committee members and volunteers because it has prepared us to take on leadership roles with national organizations, such as the American Psychological Association and the Society for Community Research and Action.

Jessica presenting her thesis at the Student Success Conference this past November.

Most importantly, creating inclusive spaces means providing the financial opportunities that allow students to fully participate.

AGEP provides funding to support travel, conference attendance, and workshops. Every year, they award multiple members a Scholar Award, which provides up to $2,000, and $300-$500 awards in the Student Success Conference. The first time Tatiana won the Scholar Award, she couldn’t believe it. She was grateful that they believed in her work, especially because she couldn’t find funding elsewhere to attend an international conference. One year, Tatiana used the funds to attend a global social network conference, where she learned how to use network software that she’s now using for her dissertation. Without those funds, she wouldn’t have felt as prepared to launch her dissertation project, which at that time wasn’t even developed yet.

Lessons for diversity and inclusion in STEM

The AGEP program can be seen and should be used as an exemplar model of diversity and inclusion in STEM. What AGEP has done for us can be modeled in other ways and spaces. Programs like AGEP are critical because they remind us how important and needed we are in our future professions.

In academic environments that often ask us to leave our culture behind, we found the support and resources needed to persist in our fields and bring our full selves to our science.

These engagements have helped us thrive, reminding us how important and needed we are in our future professions, with constant support, resources, and community. Ultimately, these programs should continue to be funded as they are an integral element in helping BIPOC students succeed in graduate school.

About the Authors

Rosaura Dominguez-Rebollar: Rosaura is a third-year dual Ph.D. student in the Ecological/ Community Psychology and the Chicano/Latino Studies Program at Michigan State University. She received her BA and MA in Forensic Psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2018. Her research focuses on advocating for and strengthening Latinx student supports in community colleges.

Jessica S. Saucedo: Born and raised in Southern California, Jessica graduated from Cal Poly Pomona with a degree in psychology. A first-generation doctoral student in community psychology, she currently collaborates with Indigenous communities to address community-identified health needs, such as obesity prevention in early childhood and food security efforts among tribal communities in Michigan.

Tatiana Elisa Bustos: Tatiana is a 5th-year Ph.D. candidate in community psychology. She is a first-generation doctoral student of Nicaraguan descent. Her doctoral research is focused on community-based research, implementation science, and health services in underserved communities.

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Dedicated to advancing Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in science. Science, culture, and community in the movement for true diversity in STEM.