This is the fourth in a series of stories detailing actions CALS students, faculty and staff have taken over the past year to make our community a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place for everyone. Here, we highlight some of the strategies CALS and its community members are adopting to improve diversity in faculty, staff and student recruitment and retention.
As a graduate student, Chelsea Specht appreciated being part of a diverse community of scholars. The variety of life experiences, identities and research topics among her fellow students contributed to a richness that benefited everyone’s scholarship, she said.
“And then as I got further and further in academia, that richness disappeared,” said Specht, the Barbara McClintock Professor of Plant Biology. Specht experienced the “leaky pipeline” phenomenon, in which women and people of color disproportionately leave academia, including in the sciences.
As a new assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Specht watched the same pattern play out with her students.
“We had Latina students coming into these academic spaces with amazing stories, talents and skills yet feeling impostor syndrome, as women, as first-generation students and as being from identities underrepresented and marginalized in academia,” she said. “And I would see these fantastic students question their own abilities in ways that made them slower to publish, slower to voice their ideas, slower to apply for grants or awards for which they were fully eligible. Then I’d see the male students coming from top universities who would never question themselves.”
Supporting diversity, equity and inclusion became central to Specht’s work. She is the director of DEI for the Botanical Society of America, and she’s part of two new National Science Foundation projects focused on leading cultural change to support diversity and belonging in the plant sciences. And as CALS’ first associate dean for diversity and inclusion, she spearheads the college’s efforts to support recruitment and retention of students and faculty from historically underrepresented backgrounds, and she serves on the steering committee for Cornell’s NIH FIRST award.
“We are actively recruiting students from backgrounds that before we might have said, ‘They don’t have the scores to survive at Cornell; they’re not gonna do well here,’” Specht said. “But now we’re realizing that ‘not doing well here’ is the direct result of the environment we create. So our charge is to humbly, critically self-assess what we as an institution need to do, not just to support students and faculty, but to change our own structures and processes to enable these diverse voices to lead our community in becoming a culture of inclusive excellence.”
Structural changes supporting DEI
Over the past two years, CALS has taken steps to improve its recruitment and retention of diverse students and faculty. Here are just a few of them:
- CALS is undertaking its first-ever faculty cluster hire initiative aimed at creating solutions to grand challenges in equity and inclusion. At least five scholars whose work addresses ongoing systemic challenges facing historically marginalized communities will be hired as a cohort starting this summer.
- The graduate fields of food science, entomology, geological sciences, atmospheric sciences and all six fields affiliated with the School of Integrative Plant Science have dropped the GRE as a requirement for grad school applications, as scores show little correlation with graduate school success but a strong correlation with race and wealth. Admission relies upon academic performance and demonstrated potential, leadership, research activities, and recommendations and personal statements that indicate teamwork, motivation, persistence, resilience and creativity especially in overcoming obstacles.
- Departments across CALS are making progress in faculty gender parity, using recruitment strategies developed by the university’s Strategic Oversight Committee. The Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences has achieved faculty gender parity for the first time, and the Department of Microbiology will achieve near-gender parity among faculty this year: five male and four female. Across CALS, 36 percent of the faculty are women.
- CALS and its departments have developed multiple peer-mentoring programs that connect incoming freshmen with more advanced undergraduates, to enhance students’ academic skills, well-being and retention. CALS has also created a new position, director of inclusive academic advising, which will oversee efforts to recruit, retain and support underrepresented and first-generation students. The new director, Rhonda Todd, began Jan. 3.
- CALS is hiring a director for diversity and inclusion with an expanded scope of responsibilities to work with faculty, graduate students, undergraduates and staff to build programs and engage in practices that institutionalize belonging and inclusion in CALS.
"Diversity creates a much more vibrant community with new opportunities for learning," Specht said.
Cluster hiring to support faculty diversity
Universitywide, Cornell has dedicated significant effort to increasing faculty diversity and supporting faculty retention. CALS also seeks to dramatically ramp up its capacity to address issues of racism, inequality and social justice in its research, teaching and outreach through a collegewide cohort hire of at least five faculty members. The effort mirrors one made by the College of Human Ecology, which recently announced a similar cluster hire of eight new faculty members. As a cohort, CALS leaders hope the new faculty members will work collaboratively and across disciplines, addressing systemic issues via interdisciplinary lenses to increase the impact of their research. They also anticipate that the cohort will support each other in their academic career development and aid in their collective well-being and long-term commitment to Cornell.
“It’s really hard to be the ‘only’ or one of few of any identity in a department,” said Specht, who was honored as a “Faculty Champion” at Cornell’s annual Graduate Diversity and Inclusion Awards ceremony this year. “Students who share that identity flock to you as an adviser, and even if you really enjoy advising, it does become a tax of time and energy. We hope that hiring a group of faculty who share values, commitment and life experiences can provide some supportive benefit to the members of that cohort, expand the impact of our research and challenge our collegewide policies in promotion and tenure to center inclusive excellence and impact as defined by our inspirational early-career scholars.”
CALS faculty who are U.S. underrepresented minorities (URM)*
*URM designation includes those who have identified as one or more of the following: Black, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and/or American Indian.
The Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics has already seen the benefits of this kind of approach played out in their graduate program. Six years ago, the department created an unintentional cluster in the acceptance of three Latina graduate students: Irma Fernandez, Oriana Teran Pumar and Mariela Núñez Santos, all of whom are now doctoral candidates and Graduate School Dean’s Scholars. The women have supported each other and many other peers through coursework, research and life.
“It was an accident that we all started the same year, because I deferred a year,” said Teran Pumar. “I’m grateful I did, because it’s been so helpful to have this group.”
“No one wants to feel like the only one, the odd one out,” Fernandez said.
The cluster has also benefited the department. The women were among the founding members of the Molecular Biology and Genetics (MBG) Diversity Council, and Fernandez and Teran Pumar were two of the student organizers of the new Life Sciences Diversity Recruitment Weekend. Fernandez and the MBG Diversity Council have both won awards for their efforts.
“Having a cohort with similar experiences, cultures and upbringing allowed me to not feel as isolated in this new environment,” Núñez Santos said. “Imposter syndrome is not something you can just fix and move on – it comes in waves. Having my group of ‘Chicas,’ as one friend called it, allowed me to feel comfortable discussing such topics, and we helped each other from the beginning. They were an invaluable support network.”
“Diversity breeds diversity,” Fernandez said. “If you have good representation in your department, if you have good allies in your department, that’s what’s going to recruit someone like me and help someone like me feel I belong.”
Centering diversity in graduate student recruitment
Suzanne Pierre, Ph.D. ’18, was the only Black student in her department when she began her graduate program in ecology and evolutionary biology, and she felt heavy expectations to prove herself. The child of Haitian and Indian immigrants, Pierre felt she had to work as hard as possible to fight stereotypes about Black people and women in science fields, and she began to “cut away parts of myself in order to fit.”
“In that feeling of cutting parts of myself away, I recognized myself less,” Pierre said. “There’s a level of change that you feel you have to make just to accommodate the workload and the expectations of your program. But those expectations, alongside the feeling of having to shape myself to fit into this cultural space that I didn’t identify with, were crushing me.”
One impactful mentor provided the support Pierre needed, she said, encouraging her to take moments to “pause” and assess whether the criticisms she was hearing – from herself, from others and from the broader culture – were actually true. These moments of self-reflection have allowed Pierre to develop more self-compassion and, in turn, greater capacity to support others, she said. Pierre was one of the co-founders (with Coby McDonald, DVM ’14, Ph.D. ’20) of the successful Diversity Preview Weekend, a yearly event since 2017 that brings underrepresented prospective graduate students to Cornell to meet faculty members and current grad students and to learn about the application process.
Pierre shared her experience in a keynote address to the Graduate School’s Summer Success Symposium, one of many resources available through the Graduate School’s Office of Inclusion and Student Engagement to make Cornell a more inclusive environment and to support students from historically underrepresented backgrounds through application, admission, fellowships and student organizations.
In the past two years, CALS has also adopted institutional changes to recruit more graduate students from diverse backgrounds and to support them through their time at Cornell. By summer 2020, every academic department and many programs within CALS had appointed Leaders for Diversity and Inclusion, who are tasked with ensuring that diversity, equity and inclusion “are centered in all unit activities,” including graduate student and faculty recruitment and retention efforts.
CALS faculty by gender
Recruiting and supporting diverse undergraduates
Caroline Steingard, a doctoral candidate in microbiology, is working to increase diversity among undergraduates in STEM fields by pairing high school students with Cornell scientists through a pen pal program. Steingard, three fellow graduate students and faculty adviser Ian Hewson, professor of microbiology, launched Write a Researcher in fall 2021. In its first year, the program has drawn participation from more than 100 researchers across 32 departments universitywide, pairing them with over 100 high school students across 11 U.S. states and Canada.
“Science tends not to reflect the diverse demographics of our country, and we want to change that,” said Steingard, president of WAR. “And one of the best times to do that is right as students are picking out a college and thinking about career paths.”
Andrew Murtha, a doctoral candidate in microbiology and treasurer of WAR, said the program seeks to illuminate the path to becoming a scientist – something Murtha said wasn’t highlighted at the rural high school he attended – and also to provide concrete resources for getting into Cornell: High school students who participate in the program will have their university application fee waived.
Attracting more diverse undergraduates to Cornell is one side of the coin; the other side is retaining and supporting them, especially through their freshman year when drop-out rates are highest, said Sue Merkel, M.S. ’88, a senior lecturer in microbiology and director of CALS’ Office of Curriculum Development and Instructional Support. Merkel co-coordinates a peer mentoring program that launched in fall 2019 and connects first-generation freshmen and transfer students with a more advanced undergraduate mentor. Freshmen who engaged with the peer mentor program saw an average 0.61-point increase in their GPAs.
Ann LaFave ’90, MPS ’12, CALS assistant dean of academic programs and student success, was a first-generation college student herself, and she sees the peer mentoring program as beneficial for both students’ success and their mental health.
“As a first-generation student, I think you always feel a little behind,” LaFave said. “There’s terminology and expectations that your parents – as wonderful as they can be cheerleading you – just don’t understand. I think peer mentoring can help ease a lot of that stress.”
“Study after study has shown how important community is in college success,” Merkel said. “We’ve got farm kids, city kids, kids from all walks of life whose families have not been connected to academia. Many of them are also low-income, and they’re just intimidated. We’re trying to provide them with another resource to help them feel that they do belong here, and we want them to succeed.”
Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
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