Intercollegiate alliance seeks to address underrepresentation of minorities in STEM fields

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Anastasia Chavez once felt targeted for being a female minority student when she was told by a professor to re-evaluate her pursuit of a higher degree.

A graduate student at UC Berkeley working toward a doctorate in mathematics, Chavez is among the 15 percent of underrepresented graduate minority students at Berkeley, according to 2013 enrollment data, and one of many who have experienced doubt about their own abilities, either due to direct discouragement or simply to the competitive environment of campus academic programs.

To address the underrepresentation of minorities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, UC Berkeley, in conjunction with UCLA, Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology,  launched the California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate on Thursday.

The initiative, funded by a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, will conduct research on the experiences of graduate and postdoctoral students as well as staff and faculty in national laboratories and institutions, additionally providing mentorship and training programs across campuses.

“If you look (across the years) from undergraduates to graduates to post-doctoral candidates to faculty, the pipeline shrinks during the process for all students … But it shrinks disproportionately for minority students,” said Mark Richards, executive dean of the College of Letters and Science and leader of the initiative.

The research staff will conduct their studies — in this case focusing on African Americans, Latinos, Hispanics and Native Americans — on three fronts. They will measure engagement and attendance of invited students at events, track graduation rates and employment decisions and measure the students’ satisfaction and sense of belonging.

For minority students in STEM fields, internal and external discrimination tends to be especially high, according to Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, research director for the CAGEP.

“In the domain of STEM in particular, there are stereotypes about inherent abilities within these fields,” Mendoza-Denton said. “You either get it or you don’t … Women and minorities are on the wrong end of that stereotype. When students experience difficulty, they question whether they have that innate ability.”

The CAGEP’s efforts parallel those of the Graduate Assembly, which has several projects in place such as the Graduate Minority Student Project. Members of this project participate in academic committees and hold mixers to create a feeling of solidarity among minority students across graduate departments.

“We as minority students are few, and we’re scattered,” said David Preciado, leader of the project and a Latino graduate student pursuing a doctorate in ethnic studies.

Minority graduate students at UC Berkeley hope this alliance will bring the campus closer to increasing minority representation.

“If you’re a student working toward your degree, there is a place for you, and there are people who want to help you,” Chavez said. “(Programs like CAGEP) give you options and show you that it’s possible.”

Contact Michelle Pitcher at [email protected].