Many of the students who have had the chance to participate in research at William & Mary describe it as an important or even life-changing part of their college careers. Now, a new program at William & Mary is seeking to make sure that everyone in the College’s diverse population has the opportunity to have that experience.
The William & Mary Scholars Undergraduate Research Experience (WMSURE) offers workshops, guidance and social opportunities to students interested in getting involved in research. WMSURE was designed to support the William & Mary Scholars, a group of 40 students each year from underrepresented backgrounds who receive full-tuition scholarships to the College based on their superior academic performance. The programming, however, is open to all students at the College.
“The students who are chosen to be W&M Scholars have a track record of high achievement. We wanted to make sure that the College was offering them the opportunity to develop their potential,” said Cheryl Dickter, Ph.D., WMSURE co-director and assistant professor of psychology.
“William & Mary is known for offering research opportunities to all students, and our faculty encourages students to get involved,” said Anne Charity Hudley, Ph.D., WMSURE co-director and associate professor of English and education. “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 includes students from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, but also students who have different mental or physical challenges.”
The WMSURE program, which launched in a pilot phase last year, is based on several other nationally recognized programs, including the McNair Scholars Program and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Research Fellowship, with which Charity Hudley has had previous experience.
Students who participate in the program conduct research with faculty mentors and attend events and workshops, open to all students at the College, that focus on subjects such as time management, writing, scholarships and grants, and graduate school. They also participate in social activities aimed to establish them as a cohort on campus.
Charity Hudley said she is pleased that the program’s offerings have been expanded to include others on campus.
Dickter stated, “We wanted to target this group, but as we’re seeing, the workshops and the events that we are putting together really appeal to other students as well.”
And though they are currently focusing on undergraduates, graduate students are welcome to participate as well, said Charity Hudley.
“WMSURE is really integrating all of the scholars programs together in a way that hasn’t happened before. As we reach out to a broader group of students, we find more and more interest, even from graduate and professional students who are farther along in their career paths.” she said.
In addition to the WMSURE’s programming for students, there are programming components for faculty members.
“We facilitate faculty workshops, where we discuss teaching about issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. We also discuss ways to talk about such issues in the classroom, and how to work with diverse students,” said Dickter, adding that she and Charity Hudley are also presenting at faculty meetings across the campus.
“There is a growing amount of empirical research on how to help students to excel, and we want to make sure our faculty have ready access to that information,” said Charity Hudley. Charity Hudley and Dickter have each just been awarded National Science Foundation grants that encourage diversity in the sciences for underrepresented groups.
Charity Hudley and Dickter have already received an overwhelmingly positive response from interested faculty members. Over forty faculty members have volunteered to serve as mentors to students or to act as liaisons for their schools or departments.
The involvement of a diverse group of faculty members in the program is vital, said Chon Glover, Ed.D., assistant to the president for diversity and community initiatives and adjunct professor of education.
“To have multiple people from different backgrounds talk about their journey and their experiences in a way itself is mentoring and role modeling for these students,” she said.
“It’s important for us to tell our stories to the students because they look at us and they think, oh well, they’ve had these perfect career paths where they went right from getting their bachelor’s to getting their master’s to getting their Ph.D.’s and everything’s been rosy,” she said. “So for us to tell them, guess what, it hasn’t always been this simple, or I started off on another career path, or I got C’s my freshman year. Sharing the struggles we went through and the changes that we made allow students to see us as real people, too.”
And though students are the focus of the program, Dickter and Charity Hudley also want WMSURE to reach parents.
“We're really planning to emphasize parent events because some parents are sending their children to a school that they might know very little about,” Charity Hudley said. “We want to use some of our efforts to quell some of that anxiety and to continue to make William and Mary a place where everyone feels represented and welcome.”
She added, “We have to educate our families as well as our students so that parents and guardians can best advocate for their children across their higher education experience.”
For many minority or first-generation students, going to graduate school or exploring non-traditional subjects in college are often things that their families have not discussed as possibilities, said Charity Hudley.
“That was the benefit from such scholar programs for me when I was in college. I learned that I could study exactly what was of interest to me and I didn't have to study something that had been traditionally part of the paradigm,” she said.
Glover added, “It’s expanding definitions of success.”
Blair Ebony Smith ’11 was one of the students to take advantage of the WMSURE program in its pilot year. A sociology major and community studies minor, she conducted research on how hip-hop can be best used to enrich the education of African-American girls. Charity Hudley mentored her in using that experience to apply for the summer Moore Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Smith is now at Syracuse University pursuing a doctorate in education as a University Fellow, a full-merit scholarship awarded to only six students at the entire university. She has also been selected to participate in the National Imagining America conference as an Imagining America PAGE (Publicly Active Graduate Education) Fellow.
Smith, who was a Gateway student, attended several WMSURE sessions last year and shared her experience at a workshop on graduate schools.
“I think it’s an awesome program,” Smith said of WMSURE. “As a graduate of Richmond Public Schools, a school system where students are often plagued with doubt of achievement, Community Studies and WMSURE fostered a supportive environment that allowed me to gain confidence in my work and ultimately grow beyond my expectations. I started the Community Studies minor my junior year, and that’s when I got into research and started to realize that I could do research and study things I was really interested in. I think that’s what the WMSURE program will allow students from underrepresented groups to do on campus. I look forward to taking my experiences learning about publicly engaged scholarship through Community Studies and WMSURE and apply it to my work at Syracuse/Imagining America and beyond. Ultimately, I want to be an advocate for just this kind of program at the undergraduate level. The literature and discourse on publicly engaged research is growing, but it is still focused predominately on the graduate and professor levels.”
Smith added, “Most of my friends didn’t know that doing actual research and practical research was even possible,” she said. “I think exposure to opportunities is what WMSURE will allow.”
Although WMSURE aims to see students like Smith pursue research or graduate degrees, the program can benefit all students, said Glover.
“Some of the workshops and skills that they can acquire by participating in this program are lifelong skills,” she said. “Students often see research as something that equates to, ‘I’m going to work in a lab, I’m going to be writing research articles all the time,’ but the ability to think critically and analyze and find data is a tool that we all need.”
Glover added that some students may think now that graduate school or research aren’t for them, “but you never know, once you get out into what is deemed the real world, it may be something you want to pursue.”
WMSURE is expected to impact not just William & Mary’s students, but, in a few years, higher education, too.
“I think what we’re also doing is making an investment in higher education by making more scholars to fill those pipelines,” said Glover. “We’re starting them on the path to what they need to become a faculty member. We’re trying to meet a social need, which is that there is still a lack of faculty from underrepresented backgrounds at many colleges and universities.”
Glover said that the program also meets a need at the College.
“I think for a long time, the College has done a pretty good job on the out-of-class experience with regards to leadership opportunities that students from diverse backgrounds have had,” Glover said, “and I think this now will just complete that whole process so that we are preparing students not just for being leaders and citizens but actual educators.“For me, it’s another way for the institution to indicate its commitment to the growth and development of all of its students beyond the doors of William & Mary.”