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By Ana Aceves
The APS Bridge Program (BP) and the newly formed APS National Mentoring Committee (NMC) held a joint annual conference from October 9-11, 2015 at Florida International University (FIU). This is the third annual conference for BP and the first for NMC.
Bridge programs, of which this is one, aim to increase the number of underrepresented minorities — defined as African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans — who earn a Ph.D. in physics. To help these students succeed, the NMC provides a national network of mentors at participating Ph.D.-granting institutions. APS funds six of the ten total sites across the country.
The NMC is an effort to increase the number of underrepresented minorities who complete a bachelor’s degree in physics by pairing mentors and mentees. NMC’s goal is to select mentors across the country who can provide students with guidance throughout their academic careers. According to APS, there are now 84 NMC mentors. Since mentoring is an essential part of the APS Bridge Program, holding these annual conferences together brings added value to the participants.
For Camila Monsalve, an undergraduate at FIU, the conference was a unique experience. “[This] conference was an eye-opener,” she said. “I have never felt so comfortable and identified in an academic environment.”
Of the 180 people registered for the conference, 50 to 60 were students. The list of attendees included representatives from APS, bridge programs, and colleges and universities from across the country.
Following welcoming remarks by Ted Hodapp, director of APS Education and Diversity, Mary James, dean for institutional diversity at Reed College, gave the first plenary talk of the conference, addressing the question of what access really means. She described the “Marie Curie effect” — the idea that someone from a marginalized group needs to be a prodigy to succeed in physics — an effect that could be an impediment for most minority physics students. James stressed the value of savviness, resilience, and perseverance in physics research.
In his plenary talk, Richard Reddick from the University of Texas at Austin explained that students benefit the most from mentoring by being responsive, understanding reciprocity, and having many mentors. He also discussed the “cultural taxation” that results from not compensating faculty of color for mentoring a disproportionately large number of students (since students of color seek them out). He advised mentees on how to find a mentor, stating the importance of getting to know personalities since people are not “brains on a stick.”
Joseph Brown from Stanford University gave a plenary talk on the topic of increasing diversity by changing the culture of the academy. He explained “stereotype threat” as: “a vigilant state in which a person is alert for signals that confirm stereotypes.” In disciplines that appear to emphasize innate talent, such as physics or math, he noted, this can be an unfortunate distraction to minorities during an exam. Brown suggested that in disciplines that do not appear to emphasize innate talent, such as sociology or anthropology, this threat is not as apparent. He recommended that faculty confront stereotype threat by allowing their students to write down what is valuable to them before any “high-stakes” exam. This would grant them perspective and relieve them from added pressure to do well.
In addition to plenary talks, there were several parallel sessions conducted throughout the conference. These were designed so that one session would target mentors — typically faculty and graduate students — and the other session would target mentees — typically undergraduates. These sessions had panelists from APS, directors of bridge programs, various faculty, and peer-mentor students. The focus here was on providing mentorship training and career options for both undergrad and graduate students.
In one such session, graduate student Pierre Avila, of the University of Houston, Clear Lake, shared the ways in which he learned how to effectively communicate with mentors and the impact of a positive mindset on one’s performance.
The conference concluded with a series of plenary talks focusing on graduate school admissions and the value of the GRE to the process. Brian Beckford — the former manager of the APS Bridge Program and now at the University of Michigan — and Ted Hodapp suggested to admissions offices that “recommend” the GRE, but do not look at it, to remove the recommendation from the website because it may discourage underrepresented minorities from applying.
Although faculty dominated the conference in numbers, their voices did not. During discussions, undergrad, and graduate students freely voiced their opinions and concerns. The result was a vigorous dialogue with students and each other on how to best address these issues.
“The major message of addressing culture and valuing students was loud and clear,” says Dimitri Dounas-Frazer, physics postdoctoral research associate at University of Colorado Boulder.
Ana Aceves is a freelance writer based in Boston, MA. She co-facilitated one of the parallel sessions at the meeting.
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