Graduate School's recruitment efforts pay off

As the first person in her family to pursue a doctoral degree and a research career, Katherine Herleman did not know what to expect.

During her first year at Cornell as an M.S./Ph.D. student in the field of geological sciences, she found herself “doing a lot of trailblazing” and relying on informal mentorship from her peers to find her way.

Aaron Joiner, a doctoral student in the field of biochemistry, molecular and cell biology, also found himself in need of peer guidance during his first year as he “struggled a lot with ‘impostor syndrome.’”

To encourage prospective students and ease the transition for new graduate students, Herleman and Joiner hope to provide a roadmap for them through one of the Graduate School’s recruitment programs.

“At Cornell, recruiting and retaining the most talented and diverse graduate and professional students is critically important to the overall success of our graduate programs,” said Barbara A. Knuth, senior vice provost and dean of the Graduate School. “Recent initiatives launched through our Recruitment Office are achieving results, one prospective student at a time.”

In 2015, the Graduate School received 614 applications directly connected to recruitment efforts – nearly one-third of the Graduate School’s applications from self-identified underrepresented minorities. Applicants who participated in Graduate School recruitment efforts have an acceptance rate of 36 percent; those in the general applicant pool had an acceptance rate of 22 percent.

One of the most promising recruitment programs, the Graduate Student Ambassador Program, encourages current graduate students to participate in recruiting strong applicants and welcoming them once admitted.

According to the Graduate School’s director of recruitment, Anitra McCarthy, ambassadors give graduate students “the opportunity to have ownership over how the graduate community identifies and cultivates relationships with talented prospective students who may not necessarily have put Cornell at the top of their list.”

Graduate student ambassadors connect with prospective students by sharing their personal experiences directly and honestly. Their diverse backgrounds, which include veterans, students with disabilities, underrepresented minorities, LGBTQ and first generation, help them develop a connection with prospective students.

The program encourages a diverse student body and helps with retention. Ambassadors often develop ongoing relationships with prospective students and serve as informal mentors, helping prospective students navigate the application and decision-making process and acclimate to graduate school.

“One of my key motivations as an ambassador is to make sure that other students coming to Cornell don’t have to feel lost like I often did during my first year,” Joiner said.

For fellow doctoral student Steve Halaby, “the greatest feeling has been meeting students at a recruitment event who didn’t think they were qualified to join our (graduate) program, keeping in touch with them through the application process and then seeing them here as students.”

To become an ambassador, students can apply to the program or be nominated by their field’s director of graduate studies. Ambassadors represent Cornell and their graduate field at recruitment events, conferences, on-campus information sessions and in some cases visits to their undergraduate alma mater.

Since its inception, the program has grown steadily, but for the program’s director the goal is to have at least one ambassador for each of 89 fields of study.

According to Chris Schaffer, associate professor of biomedical engineering, it is a “huge advantage to have students from our program serving as representatives inside and outside the Cornell community.”

Avery August, professor and chair of immunology agrees and hopes that the program is  “another reason prospective students would want to come here.”

For more information on the Graduate Student Ambassador Program, contact Anitra McCarthy,

Sally Kral is a communications assistant in the Graduate School. 

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Melissa Osgood