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.


Role models

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.

Stereotyping

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.

Lack of an explicit support system

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.

Exclusion from support networks

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.

Resources

If you find that stereotyping exceeds your ability to manage it:

Suggestions for Students

  • Reflect on how you have been socialized to think about race and ethnicity. Increase your awareness, socially and academically, by attending some of the numerous diversity forums on campus each year, and bring ideas for community building back to your department.
  • Understand that graduate students from different racial and ethnic groups confront different issues and challenges in their programs, without assuming all students from a given racial or ethnic group have the same perspectives or needs.
  • Eliminate stereotypes in your behavior by recognizing your peers' unique strengths.
  • Inform yourself about scholarly advances that have resulted from the inclusion of multicultural research, knowledge, and perspectives in your discipline. Become aware of the challenges such advances pose to faculty and students pursuing them.
  • Reach out to students of color in seminars, discussions, and group assignments. Collaborate on research or teaching projects and look for opportunities to present these projects in departmental forums or disciplinary meetings.
  • Ask your department to offer workshops on financial support, mentoring, diversity, community building, success strategies, and other matters important to your success. Offer to help department personnel organize these kinds of events.
  • Consult the Graduate Studies web pages for listings of academic, professional, and community resources you can use to navigate the graduate student experience.
  • Talk with your mentors about ways they can help you achieve a broad range of professional development experiences. If you are a student of color on a fellowship, let faculty and peers know you are interested in guest lecturing or collaborating in different lab groups.
  • Familiarize yourself with minority peers and white peers inside and outside your department who can help expand your networks.
  • Gain exposure by joining student policy, curricular, or cultural groups. Serve and shape the needs of your community by being a student representative at faculty meetings, joining the Graduate Student Organization, or leading writing, study, or teaching groups.
  • Become involved with national networks for underrepresented minorities and women students. Identify national conferences for underrepresented groups and share these with your department chair. Consider asking for financial assistance to attend.

Suggestions for Faculty

  • Reflect on how you have been socialized to think about race and ethnicity and make efforts to increase your awareness, socially and academically.
  • Inform yourself about scholarly advances in your discipline resulting from the inclusion of multicultural research and perspectives. Think about the challenges these advances pose to your discipline and to scholars.
  • Become a role model for students of color, regardless of your ethnic background. Learning more about minority students' needs will enable you to carry out this role. Also, build more explicit connections to faculty of color in or outside your department and expose your students to their work and ideas.
  • Seek, first and foremost, to understand students' individual needs. Students from different race and ethnic groups face issues and experiences differently than white students. At the same time, avoid assuming that all students from a given racial or ethnic group have the same perspectives or needs.
  • Be aware of negative classroom dynamics and the ways they may affect the experiences of all students.
  • Explicitly recognize each minority student's unique strengths and scholarly promise. Talk to students about their strengths and help them improve in other areas.
  • Offer minority students a breadth of possibilities for scholarly interactions: leading discussions, collaborating on projects, designing workshops, and presenting research at campus forums or disciplinary meetings. This allows students to show their strengths and learn new skills.
  • Make sure your department offers at least one workshop per quarter on financial support, mentoring, community building, success strategies, and other issues of importance to all students, particularly those of color. Use e-mail, newsletters, or posters to publicize helpful resources available from the Graduate Studies Office and other campus units.
  • Help your department create a policy of providing varied and developmental assistantships to all graduate students, including students of color on fellowships. Broad exposure to different kinds of academic work is just as important as deep exposure to a research problem.
  • Use informal assignments to broaden graduate students' experience, such as being student representatives in policy, curricular, and faculty meetings, or leading various writing, research, or teaching groups.
  • Familiarize yourself with minority colleagues and white faculty both in and outside your department who may help extend all students' networks.
  • Learn about national networks for underrepresented minorities in your discipline and participate in them.