Graduate School Launches Major Fellowship Program for Underrepresented Students

Andrew Zamora, REAL Fellow and graduate student in Anthropology, Barbara Krauthamer, Graduate School associate dean and associate professor of history, and Darius Taylor, REAL Fellow and graduate student in Education.
Andrew Zamora, REAL Fellow and graduate student in Anthropology, Barbara Krauthamer, Graduate School associate dean and associate professor of history, and Darius Taylor, REAL Fellow and graduate student in Education.

Implementing the first phase of a major fellowship program designed to facilitate the recruitment, retention and success of academically talented students from historically underrepresented populations, the Graduate School recently welcomed its inaugural class of 37 Research Enhancement and Leadership (REAL) Fellows to campus.

Since arriving in late August, REAL Fellows have participated in an array of activities—including an orientation, a reception and a student-faculty dinner— intended to help them navigate the transition to graduate study. This programming reflects the holistic approach to graduate education adopted by the REAL initiative, which provides fellows with up to four years of augmented funding and complements their academic training with varied professional development opportunities. When fully realized, the program will annually support 150 underrepresented students from the social sciences, humanities, fine arts, education, management, and nursing.

“I am delighted to welcome each of the Graduate School’s outstanding REAL Fellows to UMass,” said John McCarthy, dean of the Graduate School and senior vice provost for academic affairs. “Their decision to study here confirms that the REAL Program has begun to achieve one of its main objectives—attracting talented students from diverse backgrounds to our intellectual community. I look forward to seeing these students realize their academic potential with the assistance of this groundbreaking initiative.”

The Research Enhancement and Leadership Program has already begun promoting the success of its fellows by organizing extracurricular activities that deepen understanding of academic culture and facilitate networking across academic departments. These offerings commenced in late August with an orientation that explored common challenges underrepresented students may experience in graduate school, familiarized attendees with key university resources, and discussed everyday life in the Amherst area. REAL Fellows have also participated in a reception introducing them to advanced UMass doctoral students from diverse backgrounds and attended a student-faculty dinner that allowed fellows to interact informally with their advisors and graduate program directors.

“From the moment the REAL Fellows arrived on campus, we wanted them to understand that they have joined an expansive, vibrant, and welcoming community,” said Barbara Krauthamer, associate dean in the Graduate School and director of the REALProgram. “Students obviously benefit from generous funding packages, but they perform best when they also have a strong academic and social support system. Because the isolating nature of scholarly work can sometimes make establishing such an infrastructure challenging for underrepresented students, it was a priority to immediately connect our fellows with students and faculty who might become parts of their individual networks. As the semester progresses, the REAL Program will feature additional events that further promote a sense of belonging among fellows while also providing them with informal channels for acquiring relevant institutional knowledge and guidance. By immersing fellows within this supportive environment, the REAL Program will better position them to excel during their graduate careers.”

In addition to increasing retention rates among REAL Fellows, the initiative is expected to bolster recruitment of underrepresented students.  The university’s annual investment of $600,000 in the program—a commitment that doubles institutional support for diversity fellowships to $1.2 million each year—will provide fellowship recipients with an unusually high degree of financial stability. In most cases, it will supplement standard doctoral program funding offers – typically consisting of research or teaching assistantships for five academic years – with $4,000 research fellowships for four summers.“Students offered REAL fellowships will frequently receive year-round funding from their first semester through the end of their fifth academic year if they choose to attend UMass,” Krauthamer said. “Because summer financial support is exceedingly rare in the humanities, social sciences, and related disciplines, the REAL Fellowship will provide us with a significant advantage over competing institutions in attracting top minority students to the university. As a result, I am extremely confident that we will successfully recruit 150 outstanding students from diverse backgrounds to UMass by our target date of September 2019.”

The potentially transformative impact of the REAL Program is best illustrated by a parallel UMass undertaking to recruit and retain students in STEM disciplines, the Northeast Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (NEAGEP). In May 2015, the White House honored NEAGEP’s director, Sandra Petersen, with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring for her visionary work in creating several effective training programs for minority students pursuing advanced degrees in the sciences.

“UMass has long benefited from the wholly positive impact of a far-reaching fellowship, professional development, and community-building program for underrepresented graduate students in STEM fields,” Krauthamer said. “With the implementation of the REAL program, the Graduate School has now developed a cohesive campus-wide strategy for recruiting minority students to UMass and preparing them for success. As the REAL program grows, it is our hope that UMass will emerge as a leading institutional force for diversity in graduate education.”

This optimism is supported by what McCarthy describes as an enormous institutional commitment to the success of the program. “The Research Enhancement and Leadership initiative is an ambitious undertaking that simply could not have been developed without substantial contributions from Provost Newman and all of the deans of the university’s schools and colleges,” he observed. “Their steadfast resolve in bringing this project to life reveals the university’s unwavering determination to welcome students with varied cultural identities into our intellectual community and the professoriate.”