Diversity Preview Weekend gives glimpse of grad programs

As a high school student applying to colleges, Amelia-Juliette Demery never even considered Cornell or any Ivy League school.

“That is so far out of my reach,” Demery said she thought at the time.

Students tour the entomology department's insect collection during Diversity Preview Weekend at Cornell.

But while attending a conference as a master’s student, she heard about a new program for people considering graduate studies in ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) at Cornell: Diversity Preview Weekend. Held March 7-10, the event invites underrepresented minority students to Cornell to learn about the university and gain skills and confidence to apply to graduate school.

“Both my bachelor’s and master’s were at state universities, and I felt intimidated by the idea of applying somewhere like Cornell,” said Demery, whose father was African-American and mother is an immigrant from France. “The Diversity Preview Weekend made me feel really comfortable and confident that I did have a place at Cornell.”

Now in its third year, Diversity Preview Weekend is the brainchild of two EEB graduate students who were concerned about the small number of underrepresented minority applicants to their program. It’s certainly not a problem specific to Cornell: While 38 percent of the U.S. population is Latino, African-American, Asian-American or Indigenous/American Indian, only 12 percent of research doctorates in the U.S. are earned by students who identify with one of those groups, according to the Council of Graduate Schools. In the STEM fields, it’s only 10 percent.

“Many of these students would be great applicants, but they sometimes need the affirmation that they can do this, and that Cornell is the place to go,” said Chris Peritore, a doctoral candidate in plant pathology and plant-microbe biology, and one of the event’s student organizers.

Many studies have shown that diverse teams of people produce higher quality work output than homogenous teams, Peritore noted. “This program benefits these individual students, but it also benefits Cornell to have excellent scholars who are changing the academic status quo,” he said.

Student organizers of the event have adopted a broad definition of “underrepresented minority,” welcoming women and people of color as well as first-generation college students, low-income or disabled students, and LGBTQ people, for example.

Diversity Preview Weekend includes introductions to students, faculty and some of the research programs available in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. It also includes workshops on how students can improve their application packages, such as refining personal statements and CVs, and practicing interviewing techniques.

The first program ran in 2017 just for EEB students and hosted 22 students. The next year, graduate students in entomology and the School of Integrative Plant Science wanted to offer the opportunity to people interested in their departments, as well. In 2018, 40 students came; this year there were 41.

The program has had success after two admissions cycles. Nine of the 2017 weekend attendees have been accepted to graduate programs, including two at Cornell. During the 2018 weekend, one student met with a professor and was accepted as a master’s student on the spot. Of the 40 attendees, 18 applied to Cornell graduate programs in SIPS, entomology, EEB, natural resources and other departments.

After attending the preview weekend in 2017, Demery applied and was accepted to Ph.D. programs at Harvard, the University of Michigan, the University of California, Berkeley and Cornell. Her positive experience at Diversity Preview Weekend was “a big factor” in her decision to choose Cornell, where she is now a doctoral candidate in the field of ecology and evolutionary biology and the Lab of Ornithology.

“Everyone has idealistic visions about what the future of science could be, the future of the research community could be, but the fact that the grad students in these departments came together to actually act on those visions? That was really impressive,” she said.

Funding for the program has come from the Graduate School, Diversity Programs in Engineering, SIPS, EEB, the Department of Entomology and the Lab of Ornithology.

Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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