Bianka Charity-Parker doesn’t have a lot of free time.
As a doctoral student studying clinical and school psychology at UVA’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, her days are packed with research and academic obligations. But when she was invited to speak to aspiring graduate students with the Summer Undergraduate Research Program – a summer internship program affectionately known as “SURP” – she was thrilled to have the opportunity to share her advice. A former SURP intern herself, Charity-Parker remembers exactly what it’s like to be in their shoes – and just how important that guidance can be.
“I am a rising 3rd year now, and it still feels like I want to pinch myself,” she said. “Being a SURP student had a tremendous impact on my career path. Mentorship and support have played an enormous role in me achieving the goals I’ve set for myself. It’s such an honor to be able to pour into students interested in taking a similar path as me.”
Now in its 12th year of operation, SURP is working to widen the pathway to graduate study in education research. While efforts to increase diversity among undergraduates are widely publicized, the barriers facing historically underrepresented graduate students may be even more challenging. In 2016, just 15 percent of all doctorates awarded by U.S. universities went to African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, although those groups make up about 35 percent of the doctoral-graduate age population.
In education, these disparities are particularly concerning. As the country rapidly heads toward becoming a minority-majority society, bringing diverse perspectives into the research community is more important than ever.
Building a better pathway
The intensive 10-week program immerses students in the world of professional researchers.
Started in 2008, it’s funded primarily by a grant from the US Department of Education Institute of Education Science. Additional support comes from the Leadership Alliance, a national consortium of leading research institutions committed to increasing diversity in research, and the UVA Graduate Student Diversity Office. About eight interns each year are accepted, and each spends the summer working on an ongoing research project at the Curry School.
On a basic level, the program works to increase diversity by providing a structured experience specifically designed for students who are historically underrepresented in academia. Interns receive a financial stipend, professional development workshops, GRE preparation, and of course, applied research experience mentored by UVA faculty and graduate students. If they ultimately decide to apply to a graduate program at the Curry School, their application fee is waived. Every facet of the program is designed to develop interns’ career goals while providing concrete strategies for how to get there.
“The most valuable part of this program for me has been the career trajectory process, because it has really made me reflect on my future goals and career plans,” said 2019 intern Iris Sanchez Suarez.
So far, the results are promising. More than 80% of SURP alumni report attending graduate school – several have returned to UVA, others have enrolled at institutions like Harvard, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins. About 90 percent stay in the educational science field, working across the country at research labs, public schools, research and policy institutes.
But the pathway goes in both directions. According to Curry School Professor Sara Rimm-Kaufman, researchers enjoy the challenge the interns bring as they introduce new ideas and energy. Graduate students gain new mentees, and everyone gets a peek into what the next generation of educational researchers are passionate about. Every contribution makes the project a little bit stronger, and the research landscape a little bit wider.
Managing Director Leslie Booren offers countless examples of how SURP interns push their research teams to improve. This year, one intern suggested new race and ethnicity variables that researchers are planning to introduce in their next round of data collection. Last year, input from another intern led researchers to present at a national conference.
“Our interns are a fresh, new eye on ongoing work,” said Booren. “They bring in their own unique experience and perspective and help move important research forward.”
Reaching beyond UVA
While UVA directly benefits from the contributions of SURP interns, the program’s impact reaches far beyond Charlottesville.
Ultimately, the goal is to build a diverse, wide-reaching network of researchers and mentors – not just at UVA, but throughout the field of educational research. So when North Carolina Central University started a similar program several years ago, Rimm-Kaufman jumped at the chance to establish a partnership. NCCU’s Research Institute for Scholars of Equity program (RISE) enrolled its first cohort in 2017. For each of the past three years, RISE faculty and fellows have traveled to Charlottesville to spend two days working and learning with SURP fellows, graduate students, and faculty at the Curry School.
“I’m always thinking about ways to increase the diversity of students who come to UVA, and I try to detect the barriers that prevent them from wanting to be here at UVA,” said Rimm-Kaufman. “My hope is that the RISE fellows will visit and picture a future here.”
Leaders of RISE said their program is designed around creating a support network – which is critical for developing the knowledge and confidence needed to pursue graduate school and a research career. The visit to UVA expands that network.
“A lot of our fellows are first-generation college students,” said Wynetta Lee, Dean of the School of Education at NCCU. “Bringing them [to UVA] helps them see that the college universe is bigger than where they happen to be – and that there are other students like them at other universities.”
The annual trip is so popular, leaders said, that students are motivated to work harder on their research projects in preparation. On a larger scale, though, they said the partnership matters because it sends a welcoming message. For these students, in a historically unwelcoming environment, that’s a powerful thing.
“I think we’re trying to create that space in academia that says, ‘You do belong here. You bring so much knowledge to the table,’” said Marta Sanchez, an assistant professor at UNC-Wilmington who helped create RISE. “It’s so important to have someone like Sara say, ‘It doesn’t matter what’s going on around us – we want you here.’”
A cycle of mentorship
Now, more than 10 years after it was founded, the program has grown into a vibrant community of scholars, policymakers and mentors.
As that community grows, Booren said they’ve purposefully structured the program to focus more on relationship-building. Interns now work on projects in pairs to build peer relationships, and a new mentor program connects interns with UVA graduate students outside of their research project. The outside perspective gives students a broader connection to the world of education research.
The value of community may be hard to quantify, but alumni often cite it as one of the most important parts of their experience. No one understands that value better than Lidia Yanelli Monjaras Gaytan, a 2014 SURP intern who is now a third year doctoral Student at DePaul University. Gaytan studies natural mentoring relationships and the experiences of first-generation college students. She also mentors aspiring graduate students at DePaul.
“Mentorship is valuable for underrepresented students because a lot of times they are not able to get this type of support from their families or personal networks,” she said. “A lot of times my students are being highly encouraged by their family, friends, or mentors outside of school – which is great. But those networks are not always be able to offer them guidance or advice on what steps to take to pursue a graduate degree. Having a mentor who can guide a student on what steps to take can make all the difference.”
Looking back at her time as a SURP intern, Gaytan can see that the opportunity to build her professional network, surrounded by education experts, was invaluable. She still keeps in touch with her mentor and several friends from the program – and this year, with Gaytan’s encouragement, two of her own mentees at DePaul applied and were accepted to SURP themselves. And the pathway gets a little bit wider.
“Being part of SURP has been essential in accomplishing my educational goals,” Gaytan said. “I feel so grateful to be part of this network.”