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Cornell extends early support to minority engineering students

The College of Engineering hosted a first-of-its-kind virtual gathering on March 4 to welcome recently admitted engineering doctoral students from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the field, including African American, Latino, and indigenous populations.

The event was developed in partnership with Diversity Programs in Engineering’s director, Jami P. Joyner, the Cornell Graduate School’s senior director of recruitment, Anitra Douglas-McCarthy, and a committee of faculty and graduate students from the College of Engineering.

One of the goals of the event was to show the students – who have yet to make their enrollment decisions – that there is an existing support network of students of color at Cornell and within the College of Engineering. Studies show that a sense of belonging, or lack thereof, can affect everything from a student’s academic performance to future careers decisions. One such study from the International Journal of Doctoral Studies suggests community-oriented peer networks can help curb negative effects from lack of belonging.

“There’s real power in seeing how many of us are here,” said Katie Randolph, doctoral student in biological and environmental engineering and one of the event organizers.

The event included a moderated panel comprised of current graduate student engineers of color from a diverse cross-section of engineering disciplines and was followed by a virtual social hour. To create a space for open and authentic conversation and dialogue, the event was intentionally only open to prospective and current students.

“What happens with many different recruitment events is that our underrepresented minority students stay somewhat in the background,” says Javon Walker, doctoral student in chemical and biomolecular engineering and event organizer. “So, what we tried to do is make them feel more important and design an event, specifically for them, that will tend to their needs.”

The panel topics ranged from the transition to graduate school to building relationships with faculty members – something the event organizers helped to do by hosting a coffee hour for incoming doctoral students to connect with professors from the same backgrounds.

Just as important as the panel’s insights were the people delivering them. Representation is vital to creating a sense of belonging at Cornell, according to event organizers, and the committee put a lot of effort into ensuring everyone who attended the event could envision themselves succeeding at the university.

“The real impact was in the panelists and the moderators who were selected,” said Walker. “When we look like them – the panelists, the moderators, the people in the audience – we can relate to one another.”

Joyner believes this collaborative recruitment effort exhibits Cornell’s commitment to representation, inclusion and access.

“Our engineering community strives continuously to be a place of belonging, not only demonstrated with critical campus recruitment initiatives, but also throughout students’ academic careers within departments and across the college,” said Joyner.

Doctoral student moderators for the panel included Jesus Lopez Baltazar, chemical and biomolecular engineering; and Javon Walker, chemical and biomolecular engineering.

Doctoral student panelists included Joe Casamento, materials science and engineering; Casey Ching, civil and environmental engineering; Prince Ochonma, chemical and biomolecular engineering; Katie Randolph, biological and environmental engineering; Chelsea Stephens, biomedical engineering.

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