As the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences aims to attract and prepare the next generation of top scholars, researchers and teachers, a new series of Grand Challenge Fellowships has begun opening doors to a broader group of talented students from underrepresented populations.
Among them, the Graduate School’s first class of Dean’s Doctoral Fellows is entering its second year of graduate study this fall. The program includes Ph.D. students in the Departments of Chemistry, Economics, Environmental Sciences, History, Psychology, Sociology, as well as Religious Studies, where Michelle Bostic is focusing her graduate studies on religious ethics in relation to issues of housing, poverty and race. The first member of her family to graduate from college, Bostic completed a master of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary and was working at a New Jersey homeless shelter as a case manager for people with substance abuse issues before receiving a Dean’s Doctoral Fellowship.
As part of their introductions to their Ph.D. programs, Bostic credited Keisha John, the Arts & Sciences’ Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, for organizing workshops on how to navigate the unfamiliar world of research grant applications and networking for research collaborators, as well as informal social gatherings to help the different fellows connect.
“Especially coming into a program at the Ph.D. level as a first-generation college graduate, it can be a challenge learning how to navigate these worlds,” Bostic said. “At the same time, my department has been great about receiving feedback and encouraging me to voice my needs more. It’s not merely that you bring a different face into the room. My experiences have shaped my research. It’s why I’m interested in the ethics around housing, race and poverty, and the ways that I approach that topic are going to be very different than the way that someone else who hasn't worked in those areas would.”
An impact beyond UVA
The Dean’s Doctoral Fellowships and the Bridge to the Doctorate program, which facilitates the transition of under-represented and underprepared students transition doctorate programs, are currently funded through the University’s Strategic Investment Fund (SIF). As the College and Graduate School prepares to expand on its commitment to a broader array of race, justice and equity initiatives, it is committed to sustaining them as defining programs beyond the current SIF funding, Arts & Sciences Dean Ian Baucom said.
“These programs represent a fundamental commitment to become — in our core mission—a graduate school dedicated to expanding the diversity pipeline of higher education, civic life, research, arts, and the professions, not only at UVA but for the worlds our graduate students will enter and change,” Baucom said.
Ed Barnaby, Arts & Sciences’ Assoc. Dean for Graduate Academic Programs, said that fellowship support for talented graduate students also serves to benefit the faculty members they assist in research, as well as the undergraduate students they teach and advise.
“In the ecosystem of the university, doctoral students bring a distinct energy and freshness to research and teaching,” Barnaby said. “And the financial support that we’re now able to provide to these graduate students enables them to achieve a more optimal balance between research and teaching that will enable them to complete distinguished dissertations and launch successful careers.”
David Crowe, a Bridge to the Doctorate and Dean’s Doctoral Fellow in the Ph.D. program of the Department of Environmental Sciences, earned his B.S. in computer science at Texas State University and interned at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory before coming to Grounds last fall.
“My background in computer science could have afforded a nice, cushy job in the tech industry, but I felt that wouldn’t make my heart sing,” said Crowe, who is Colombian American. “The doctoral fellowship allowed me to connect with like-minded students here at UVA and really sort out any financial concerns, which has empowered me to focus purely on my academics. It takes a huge weight off my shoulders. Because of the fellowship, I can wake up at a reasonable time and just go hard on my research for the next six to 10 hours. For me, that’s the dream.”
Crowe is focusing his research on the atmospheric sciences. This past year, he assisted Stephan De Wekker, professor of environmental sciences, on a research project using drones to measure wind-speed data as an alternative to the traditional use of tethered weather balloons. As part of the project, Crowe helped two undergraduate research assistants, Raghava Pamula and Sophia Chen, wrangle with data and refine the machine learning modules used in the work. They are submitting their findings for potential publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal this fall.
Although it remains too early to make any assessments about the long-term impact of the Dean’s Doctoral Fellows and Bridge to the Doctorate programs, Assoc. Dean Keisha John said the Graduate School is committed to improving the representation of faculty of color at UVA.
“The demographics of the country are changing; we need — and students continue to ask for — representation in our faculty. This is not unique to UVA,” she said. “To successfully respond, it is essential that we are guided by equity as we further open doors for the entrance of diverse students into the academy. Our investment in this work is critical, especially in this current moment.”
Dean’s Doctoral Fellow Nia Baker, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology, recognizes that continued progress needs to be made to support these ambitions and to open doors of opportunity for other Black graduate students and minoritized racial groups. Researching gender and sexuality, she is interested in studying the documented increase in Black women identifying as bisexual in the last decade, as well as other phenomena of sexual identity formation affected by race and racism.
“The Dean’s Doctoral Fellowship program and other programs help to address the structural inequalities and culturally inadequacies that exist at UVA as a predominately white institution, Baker said. “When I first got here, [before the COVID-19 pandemic moved the spring semester online], it was really great connecting with other students from similar backgrounds in other departments and not feeling so alone,” she said. “It can be daunting coming into a program for the first time and already having a case of “impostor syndrome” about being a doctoral student. That can be amplified when you’re the only person who looks like you or who is researching the thing you’re interested in.”