Students + Campus

Institute preps top black students for rigors of grad studies

Mahalia Little

Mahaliah Little, a senior in English from Spelman College in Atlanta, was dismayed when she got back the rough draft of a paper she had written for a summer course at UCLA. It was filled with comments from her instructor.

“There was so much feedback that I just broke down and cried,” Little recalled of the painful moment. “Once I was done being hurt and began to think more rationally, I realized that when you get to this level of academia, you are expected to produce new knowledge rather than just analyzing someone else’s scholarship. I feel much better equipped now because I know exactly what I need to do." But, she added, "It’s still challenging.”

It’s precisely this level of rigor that has allowed UCLA’s Summer Humanities Institute, managed by the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies, to successfully prepare students to succeed in graduate programs in the humanities and humanistic social sciences — vital areas of study where minority scholars are woefully underrepresented.

Little is one of 10 outstanding students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) participating in the institute, a program that prepares high-achieving undergraduates from underrepresented backgrounds for the rigors of graduate school.

The eight-week program is focused on addressing a nationwide problem with systemwide implications: At the graduate level, African Americans are the most underrepresented group in relation to their population. At UC campuses, they made up only 2.5 percent of UC’s academic doctoral program enrollment from 2006-2010.

To help remedy that, the UC-HBCU initiative makes available Pathways grants and awards to UC faculty to encourage collaboration with faculty and students at HBCUs by offering workshops, research internships and programs, and specialized training. The UCLA Graduate Division assists UC with this effort. This year, Graduate Division Associate Dean Carlos Grijalva hosted a workshop for faculty members who were interested in the initiative, and a team from the division helped guide them through the proposal process.

Last year, UCLA faculty recipients of these awards included Sandra Graham, professor of education; Darnell Hunt, director of the Bunche center and a sociology professor; and William Worger, professor of history. This year, faculty members Dwayne Simmons, professor of integrative biology and physiology, and Paul Barber, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, won Pathways awards.

Simmons plans to bring select HBCU students to UCLA for a summer research program sponsored by the Brain Research Institute, the Neuroscience Graduate Interdepartmental Program and the UCLA ACCESS Program. They’ll participate in rigorous, indepth research in neuroscience and physiology, in an undergraduate forum, GRE prep courses and poster sessions as well as travel to Society for Neuroscience meetings. Also, faculty from HBCU institutions and UCLA will visit each other's campuses to give talks and forge new collaborations.

Barber, a marine biologist doing field research with graduate students on biodiversity in the Coral Triangle off the coast of Indonesia, plans to bring HBCU students there next summer to train in scientific diving and marine research. They will then return to UCLA to complete their research projects and explore regional marine environments and, hopefully, Ph.D. programs.

“Minority groups are underrepresented in science in general, but are particularly underrepresented in marine science,” Barber said in an email. “There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the key solutions is simply to provide exposure and access to marine science to groups that have traditionally not participated in this field. There are very few HBCUs with marine programs.”

His proposal is based on the Diversity Project, a successful program he has developed and run for the past eight years to motivate underrepresented students to enter Ph.D. programs in marine science.

The Summer Humanities Institute run by the Bunche center has also produced remarkable results, according to Ana-Christina Ramón, assistant director of the Bunche center and program coordinator. The program is now in its 12th year, thanks to the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and a supplemental grant from the UC Office of the President.

“We’ve had a really strong track record. More than 80 percent of the students we track go on to attend graduate school and to get master’s, Ph.D. and law degrees from prestigious institutions, such as Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell and, of course, UCLA,” Ramón said.

The institute exposes HBCU students not only to the format of graduate-level seminars, but also to the amount of reading that will be required and the types of research papers they will be expected to produce.

One of the unique features that distinguishes the institute at UCLA from others across the country, Ramón said, is the fact that it primarily targets HBCU students who may not have access to the same research resources UCLA can provide.

For example, the campus puts 10 expansive libraries as well as other special collections at their disposal.

Ashea Turner from Tuskegee University in Alabama is taking advantage of UCLA's wide range of libraries while she is in the Summer Humanities Institute.

It’s one of the advantages of a large research university that she appreciates, said Ashea Turner, a political science major and senior from Tuskegee University in Alabama.

“There are more facilities and more options available here,” Turner said. “The campus is not only big, but it has more resources.” She, along with her fellow students, have used the Bunche center, Powell Undergraduate and the Young Research libraries.

Despite UCLA’s ample resources for students like Little and Turner, navigating a large university in a sprawling city like Los Angeles can be a challenge.

“Personally, I’m used to a much smaller liberal arts school, and I’ve never been to California, so it’s been kind of like a culture shock,” Little said.

To help students feel comfortable in their new surroundings, the program arranges events where they meet Los Angeles-based alumni from the institute and HBCU campuses. Students also take field trips to important landmarks in the community, including the California African American Museum, the murals in Leimert Park as well as the First AME Church and Watts Towers, among others.

Students rate UCLA’s Summer Humanities Institute very highly. They say the experience has been invaluable in preparing them for and affirming their desire to pursue graduate studies.

“Given the experience with my professors and their level of engagement with my research, I definitely plan to apply to graduate school,” Little said, “and I’d definitely consider UCLA.”

The UC-HBCU Initiative and how students have benefited from it.

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