In high school, Edward Hernández ’17 didn’t give much thought to research.
“You went to class. You studied at home. You took tests, and that was it – you were done,” Hernández said. “Then I came to William & Mary and saw a couple of presentations that said everything’s about research, and [I thought], ‘Oh my goodness, what have I gotten myself into?’”
Despite the initial shock, Hernández immediately jumped into research, joining the Social Networks and Political Psychology (SNaPP) Lab before branching into additional areas of study.
While developing as a researcher, Hernández has found support, community and, now, a chance to help others, through the William & Mary Scholars Undergraduate Research Experience program (WMSURE).
The program, which provides undergraduate students at William & Mary with mentoring and research opportunities, is marking its fifth anniversary this year. And while its directors – Anne H. Charity Hudley and Cheryl Dickter – are celebrating WMSURE’s successes, they are also making big plans for its future with the help of students like Hernández and faculty across the university.
“The Gallup organization recently polled 30,000 college graduates to see what academic factors contributed most to their happiness in their work,” said Dennis Manos, vice provost for research and graduate/professional studies. “They found the most important things were 1) a professor who cared about them as a person, 2) a professor who got them excited about learning and 3) a professor who encouraged them to pursue their dreams. Although among those surveyed elsewhere, only one student in seven had all three, Professor Anne Charity Hudley and Professor Cheryl Dickter definitely provide all three in great abundance to every student lucky enough to participate in WMSURE.”
Unique to W&M
WMSURE was founded in 2010 to provide formalized programming, support and research opportunities to William & Mary Scholars, a group of about 40 students per year from underrepresented groups who receive a full-tuition scholarship to the university based on academic merit.
“William & Mary is known for offering research opportunities to all students, and our faculty encourages students to get involved,” said Charity Hudley, professor of community studies and associate professor of Africana studies, education, English and linguistics, in a 2011 W&M News article. “But the literature shows that it’s important to have dedicated programs to make students from diverse populations and backgrounds feel that they are included in research. Diverse populations include students from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, but also students who have different mental or physical challenges.”
Although such students are still a focus of WMSURE, its programming is open to all students on campus.
Participants are connected with faculty mentors from across the campus in order to pursue research in a variety of academic areas. Participants may also attend weekly workshops (with food provided) that offer guidance on topics ranging from time management to preparing for graduate school. The weekly meetings additionally provide participants a space to talk about topics such as race, gender and socioeconomic status and discuss the unique challenges faced by underrepresented students on campus, like “solo status,” the experience of being the only person of a social category in a group.
“A lot of programs out there are run by administrators, and I think we have a different perspective because our program is designed and led by faculty. We are coming from a research focus while at other schools, programming is more focused on improving students’ grades or increasing the graduation rate,” she said.
The chance for undergraduates to participate in research is “the most unique quality of William & Mary,” Charity Hudley said.
“Having the frequent opportunity of going from small seminars through the research experience and sustained relationships with faculty from the first year through your senior year is not an opportunity for most students at most research universities,” she said.
Five years of growth
In its first five years, the program has successfully created “a culture where students from different backgrounds feel like they understand what research is and are able to participate in research” and extended “the qualities that research brings – professionalism, independent work and thought, being able to focus on a particular topic for a sustained amount of time – to a broader network of students on campus,” said Charity Hudley.
“You don’t have to be a student with a 4.0 average here or honors or anything near that to do research,” she added. “Research is a process and an experience, not just something you do as an achievement.”
Since the program’s inception, WMSURE has seen the number workshop participants increase from about 10 students per week to 25-40, said Dickter.
The quality of the programming has also improved, she added, based on research she and Charity Hudley have conducted.
“We listened to students,” Dickter said. “They told us what they wanted in terms of support, so I think that we’re serving our specific population of students well.”
According to a study conducted by the program directors, WMSURE students felt significantly more supported by faculty and were more likely to have a faculty mentor than non-WMSURE students. WMSURE students also reported being more interested in research and more informed about research than other students.
Within her own W&M Social Cognition Lab, Dickter has seen the impact of WMSURE, with more freshmen and sophomores signing up to conduct research.
“Our students who begin research early on are like graduate students by the time they get to be seniors,” she said. “They’re so well trained and enthusiastic about research and they understand the research process. Our students are able to see what research is really like because they’ve been involved in multiple studies … so instead of them coming in for one semester and seeing a portion of a project, they’re able to see the whole research process from start to finish, which I think is really great.”
Assistant Professor of Government Jaime Settle, who runs the SNaPP lab where Hernández has worked since freshman year, said that although W&M students in general are great, “I feel like WMSURE students really have a good sense for what they want to get out of their experience at William & Mary.”
“One thing that always strikes me a lot is the amount of initiative that WMSURE students take,” Settle said. “They are confident in what they know and what they want to learn, and they’re very open-minded about trying new things. And if you give them a puzzle to work through, they’re going to stick with it. They’re very tenacious in that sense.”
‘A step ahead’
With WMSURE’s support, dozens of students have undertaken honors theses and graduated with honors. Others have presented at national conferences or had their research published in peer-reviewed journals. Others still have gone on to some of the best graduate programs in the country, Dickter said.
Dahanah Josias Sejour ’15 is one such student. A Gates Scholar, she got involved with WMSURE as she grew more interested in research and graduate school.
Through the program, Sejour, who majored in psychology, kinesiology and health sciences, received a grant to do summer research toward her senior honors thesis. Later, she received another grant, this one from the Roy R. Charles Center for Academic Excellence, to travel to a national psychology conference in California and present her research there.
“Before I got more involved in WMSURE, I wasn’t actually thinking about doing more research,” Sejour said. “I was just like, alright, I’ll work at it but I was very intimidated because you think thesis and you think master’s and you don’t think that’s something you can do … but the more we talked about it, the more people presented on stuff at WMSURE, the more I built my confidence.”
Sejour graduated from William & Mary with honors in May. She is now a graduate student at Emory University, and she recently got a job with the CDC, which she attributes, in part, to her increased marketability from having done research and an honors thesis. Even if she had not been involved in WMSURE, Sejour says that she would still probably be in graduate school right now, “but I definitely wouldn’t have been as prepared.”
“It definitely helped me be a step ahead,” she said. “Looking back now, there are a lot of things I probably wouldn’t have known without a space where people are dedicated to helping you.”
The program’s fifth year has been a particularly fruitful one thus far. WMSURE recently received two gifts to support its efforts, including $68,000 matching grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund to finance WMSURE’s student fellowships as well as outreach to high school students through the WMSURE Research 2015 program, in coordination with the annual Autumn Blast event for prospective multicultural students. The other gift was part of a $1 million commitment from Jody Forsyth and Wilma Quan-Forsyth (parents of Samantha ’15, a William & Mary Law School student), which will establish the Forsyth Family Scholarship Fund and support the William & Mary Scholars and William & Mary Scholars Undergraduate Research Experience (WMSURE) programs as well as Swem Library’s Special Collections Research Fund.
This summer, WMSURE hosted its first faculty conference, which was attended by nearly 50 professors from colleges across the state. In September, the Public University Honors website published an essay on WMSURE written by Charity Hudley, Dickter and Hannah Franz ’07. The three have also begun work on a new book that is currently under contract, Highest Honors: A Guide to Undergraduate Research, which aims to help students take advantage of the resources and research opportunities available to them in university settings. In October, the program will host an open house during Homecoming weekend.
As Charity Hudley and Dickter look to WMSURE’s next five years and beyond, they hope to see the program continue to grow and impact not just its participants, but the entire campus by promoting increased inclusivity.
“I’d love people to really think about what our programs’ and our departments’ opportunities need to look like to be even more inclusive to African-American, Latin@ [a gender-neutral term for people of Latin-American ethnicity], Native American, and Asian Students, of first-generation college students, of students from low-income backgrounds,” Charity Hudley said. “I’d love to see WMSURE grow into leading those changes and into a vehicle for sparking those conversations in programs, departments and schools across campus.”
Now a junior majoring in linguistics, Hernández is no longer a stranger to research. In fact, Hernández is helping other students during regular weekly office hours by serving as a WMSURE fellow.
Although the program has helped with time management skills, preparing for graduate school and recruiting people to help with research, Hernández said what it’s really provided is a sense of belonging.
“The William & Mary population at large doesn’t feel very much like me – being Latin@ being queer, being poor – I don’t feel very connected to most people on campus, which is not any sort of indictment of them, but I don’t feel like I have all that much in common with them,” Hernández said. “I feel altogether more connected to the WMSURE folks. I feel that we have more in common, not like I have something in common with all of them, but I have something in common with more of them than I do with a similar percentage of the general William & Mary community. It’s where I feel like I fit out of all the places, all the student groups I’m involved with.”
Leading WMSURE has given Charity Hudley a new respect for the resilience and brilliance of William & Mary students like Hernández.
“The challenges they’ve had to face are so particularly unique,” she said. “On a global scale, we know these things are out there – hunger, homelessness, parental incarceration – but I think we’re still grappling on our campus about what do they look like here at William & Mary and what is everybody’s collective responsibility to every William & Mary student.
“I feel like this has opened the conversation not only for me but for many more faculty on campus, and I hope that continues.”