Race and ethnicity are important factors that shape the academic, social, and professional experiences on campus of faculty and graduate students alike. Although the racial and ethnic diversity of the UNL graduate student population has been increasing over the last 20 years, the campus community as a whole remains relatively homogenous.
One reason is that efforts to enhance the pipeline of students at primary and secondary levels preparing for higher education have been well-meaning, but sporadic and limited. Another reason is that disciplinary programs are still learning how to expand their student recruitment and outreach efforts. Thus, ethnic minority graduate students at UNL can feel marginalized, not only in the student population but in how research problems and curricula reflect, or fail to reflect, their scholarly influence and experiences.
We need more role models of faculty and students who engage in multicultural scholarship, research, and teaching so as to make diversity awareness and support structures in graduate training more explicit.
When students enter a large and complex research university, they can experience feelings of isolation or become overwhelmed. One of the first things students do is seek out people with whom they can identify in order to temper those feelings. This search can be especially challenging for students of color because the dearth of minority faculty, and of white faculty who resonate with their academic and sociocultural experiences, makes it difficult to find role models in their fields. It is not the case that ethnic minorities only want other ethnic minorities as professors and mentors. Rather, they seek to find affinity with role models who have "paved the way," who actively work through the dissonances between their home communities and the academic community, and who can help students do the same. Mentors help students see pathways to their own futures more clearly. When one of the few faculty of color leaves UNL for another university, minority students can feel the impact — it often means losing a potential supporter of their work.
Stereotypes still exist on campus and there is a great need to eliminate unexamined assumptions. Stereotypes are particularly burdensome to graduate students of color, not least because many have worked hard to overcome significant barriers to get to graduate school. A stereotype they worry about is whether other graduate students and faculty will have low expectations of them. This stereotype makes minority students feel awkward when seeking advice and guidance. Another harmful stereotype is that "all ethnic minorities are alike" or have the same goals for graduate school and thus experience the same challenges. This lumping together of outlooks or abilities creates an environment that compromises collegial interaction and undermines students' individual needs and talents.
At least two kinds of support are necessary for students, and students of color in particular, to succeed. The first is sufficient financial support and the other is environmental support, including mentoring and networking. It is dangerous for departments to assume that students automatically "know" how to navigate the system or pursue support in such areas as grant writing, locating assistantships, and establishing networks with potential mentors. Marginalized students may have fewer direct channels to such sources. Students in a number of programs have found ways to form groups to address these issues.
Underrepresented students on fellowships often are inadvertently overlooked for teaching and research assistantships. As a result, they experience fewer opportunities for collegial, career-building interactions with faculty and peers who may be student instructors or research assistants. They also miss out on how such teaching and research assignments can enhance graduate training and strengthen their curricula vitae.