From Here to There
Program helps underrepresented students advance their academic career
When Yamil Colón arrived at the University of Notre Dame from Puerto Rico, he had yet to spend much time outside of the island. A chemical and biomolecular engineering major, Colón grew up in Bayamón, a city of about 200,000 in the northern coastal region of Puerto Rico, outside the capital of San Juan. His mother taught middle school. His father worked at the local television station. He spoke imperfect English.
“My original exposure to Notre Dame was through football,” Colón said. Like others on the island, he sometimes watched the Fighting Irish football team on NBC Puerto Rico.
But with support from faculty as well as Multicultural Student Programs and Services (MSPS), Colón soon found his way at Notre Dame. He did research with Joan Brenneke, then the Keating Crawford Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. He joined the Latino Student Alliance and participated in Latin Expressions, a showcase of Latino culture. He was a leading member of the intercollegiate ballroom dancing team.
“I want to help diversify the University and keep that diversity because it’s not just about bringing students in, but keeping them here and giving them the tools and support that they need to battle through.” – Yamil Colón
“I found my niche,” Colón said. “I found my groups.”
Today, after stops at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain (Fulbright Scholarship), Northwestern University (Ph.D. in chemical engineering) and the University of Chicago (postdoctoral research at Argonne National Laboratory), Colón is back at Notre Dame, beginning his second year as a tenure-track assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering in the College of Engineering.
What’s more, as part of Building Bridges, an MSPS program that pairs underrepresented and minority students with faculty mentors, he is a mentor to first-year students like his younger self.
“I want to help diversify the University and keep that diversity,” Colón said of his involvement in the program. “Because it’s not just about bringing students in, but keeping them here and giving them the tools and support that they need to battle through.”
“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t involved in this.”
Colón is among a small but growing number of tenure-track faculty with roots in MSPS, a program of the Division of Student Affairs at Notre Dame that provides access to opportunities and resources for historically underrepresented students to thrive at Notre Dame and beyond.
Academically speaking, this involves two separate but related programs.
Building Bridges is a mentorship program that matches first-year students with faculty mentors from departments the students wish to explore as majors. The program helps students develop skills to communicate effectively with faculty as well as peer mentors and groups, and through such conversations to become better informed about which major and which career field best suits their interests.
Building Bridges also challenges traditional notions of a mentor-mentee relationship, in which mentor and mentee share similar social and economic backgrounds, said Arnel Bulaoro, interim director of MSPS.
“Building Bridges upends that notion, as the majority of our mentors are white faculty working with students from diverse backgrounds unlike their own, which requires faculty to think more widely and broadly about the relationship.”
The MSPS Scholars Program prepares sophomores, juniors and seniors for graduate school programs. Students in the program maintain a highly competitive academic record and conduct research under the guidance of Notre Dame faculty or via external research fellowships, often through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.
Research is a particular point of emphasis in both programs. In fact, MSPS students are more likely than the average Notre Dame student to participate in research alongside a faculty member — by 5 percentage points on average, according to Bulaoro — contributing to an increasingly diverse undergraduate research population.
“We know when students start doing research early, one likely outcome is that they will be published by the time they graduate,” Bulaoro said. “And often that’s all that graduate schools need to see.”
Summer research fellowships are especially valuable, Bulaoro said, providing opportunities for students in both programs to explore potential Ph.D. programs, and for principal investigators to work closely with promising undergraduate students.
“I’ve had students return from summer fellowships and share with me that their principal investigator basically told them, ‘All you need to do is fill out the (graduate school) application and we will have a spot waiting for you,’” he said.
In addition to MSPS, Notre Dame offers support for underrepresented and/or first-generation students via the AnBryce Scholars Initiative, the Sorin Scholars Program, QuestBridge, the Posse Scholars Program and the Balfour-Hesburgh Scholars Program, among others.
In an environment in which fewer than 20 percent of tenured faculty in the U.S. are non-white, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the results are encouraging.
Since 2009, 88 former MSPS students have started or completed doctoral programs, with the following results: 50 are still enrolled; 10 are working outside the academy; 20 are post-doctoral fellows; and eight are tenure track faculty.
“These were all outcomes where we could go back and say it is most likely a direct result of early and frequent interaction with faculty in their fields,” said Bulaoro, who holds a bachelor of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington and a master of arts in theology from Notre Dame.
He added, “It will be interesting to see what happens with the post docs, whether they slide into tenure track positions or take full-time positions with a company or firm or independent lab outside of the academy.”
Diversity as strength
Faculty diversity is important for its own sake, but there are practical benefits as well.
Within the classroom, faculty diversity broadens the scope and quality of discussion and promotes racial and cultural awareness among students of all backgrounds. Among minority students, it contributes to a sense of pride and belonging, and it encourages higher personal standards of success. Minority students who study under minority educators are less likely to be overlooked for recognition and advancement, research shows, and faculty diversity can help improve retention rates among minority students.
“One of the things students are always discussing is that they have a strong desire to be surrounded by a very diverse faculty population.” – Arnel Bulaoro
“If you don’t have diverse faculty, then in a sense you don’t have mentors and advisors and classroom instructors whose cultural experiences and social experiences reflect those of the students you have in your undergraduate and graduate populations,” said Hugh Page, vice president and associate provost of undergraduate affairs and professor of theology and Africana studies at Notre Dame. “Also, you don’t have faculty capable of engaging in sustained conversations about complex issues that reflect the disciplinary heterogeneity that exists in the larger academy.”
Outside of the classroom, diversity is associated with innovation, which is important for research, and it has a positive influence on student, staff and faculty recruitment.
“One of the things students are always discussing is that they have a strong desire to be surrounded by a very diverse faculty population,” said Bulaoro.
The daughter of working class parents of Mexican descent, Camille Suárez, a 2013 Notre Dame graduate, arrived in South Bend knowing she wanted to do something with “ideas and reading and writing.”
“But being I was a first-generation college student, I didn’t really know what a Ph.D. was and what graduate school meant and how to even apply to graduate school,” the Los Angeles native said.
“Because of MSPS, I was lucky enough to have professors that took an interest in me and pointed me in the right direction to come to the idea that graduate school was something that I could do.” – Camille Suárez
Even so, after graduating from Notre Dame with a degree in honors history and a minor in Latino studies, Suárez applied to the University of Pennsylvania. She was accepted, and earned her Ph.D. from there in 2019. Her dissertation, “How the West Was Won: Race, Citizenship, and the Colonial Roots of California, 1849-1979,” explored California statehood as a formative process with long-lasting consequences for California and U.S. society, American imperialism in the Pacific and U.S. immigration policy in the late-19th and 20th centuries.
Today, Suárez is a tenure-track professor of 19th Century U.S. History at California State University Los Angeles, in her native California. She spent the 2019-20 academic year teaching the same subject on a tenure track at Valparaiso University.
Suárez credits MSPS, and in particular the Building Bridges program, for providing her with the intellectual tools and knowledge to confidently pursue a career in higher education.
“Because of MSPS, I was lucky enough to have professors that took an interest in me and pointed me in the right direction to come to the idea that graduate school was something that I could do,” Suárez said.
That included Richard Pierce, an associate professor of history and Suárez’s mentor in the Building Bridges program.
“What was most impactful was the conversations I had with Richard Pierce, just checking in about academic trajectory and how I was adjusting and thriving at Notre Dame and what I wanted to do and was interested in,” Suárez said. “Those conversations were reflective and revolved around the courses I was taking and how I was spending my summers, and I think those conversations led to me to apply to graduate school.”
Like Suárez, Myisha Eatmon, another former MSPS student, grew up working class, but in a historically Black neighborhood in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her mother worked as a housekeeper and later as a teaching assistant at the University of North Carolina. Eatmon worked two jobs through high school and graduated early.
“One of the reasons I was confident about going into a Ph.D. program was because I had met so many different types of faculty as an undergraduate. And Mr. Davis himself taught me I could be a Black scholar who was authentically herself.” – Myisha Eatmon
“My bridges experience was amazing,” said Eatmon, who was among the program’s fifteenth cohort in 2008.
About her mentor, Darren Davis, the Lilly Presidential Fellow in the Department of Political Science at Notre Dame, Eatmon said, “He was his authentic self and was not afraid to push or challenge me. I came to Notre Dame thinking I knew what my life trajectory would be, and he challenged me along the way.”
Initially, Eatmon said, she had planned to attend law school and then “do my time at some $150,000 a year law firm, pay my (student) debt and be a civil rights attorney. From there, I would run for public office. That’s where I felt I could make a real change.”
But Davis encouraged her to consider other options.
“He explained that I could do the work I wanted in the classroom, and that I would reach more people that way,” Eatmon said.
That relationship continued through graduate school, Eatmon said.
“There were times in my first couple years of graduate school where (Davis) was the person I would reach out to when I had anxiety or felt I wasn’t cut out for it,” she said, noting he did this on his own, without recognition or compensation. “He continued to mentor me after I left Notre Dame, and that was valuable.”
About the Building Bridges program more generally, Eatmon said, “it demystifies building relationships with faculty. One of the reasons I was confident about going into a Ph.D. program was because I had met so many different types of faculty as an undergraduate. And Mr. Davis himself taught me I could be a Black scholar who was authentically herself.”
Eatmon graduated from Notre Dame with a bachelor’s degree in political science. She earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in U.S. history from Northwestern University. Her dissertation, “Public Wrongs, Private Rights: African Americans, Private Law, and White Violence during Jim Crow,” examined Black legal culture in the Jim Crow South.
Today, she is a tenure-track professor of African American history at the University of South Carolina, where she previously served as a research fellow.
Colón followed a similar path.
Like Eatmon and Suárez, he arrived at Notre Dame with the intention of graduating and then leaving the academy behind. “I need to get a job and provide for my family,” he recalled thinking at the time.
“It wasn’t until I got exposed to the research environment here that I thought, ‘Well, I can do this,’” he said. “’I really like this part. I can do this job.’”
Work to do
Still, as recent events make clear, higher education is not immune to stumbles and blind spots when it comes to issues of diversity and inclusion: loyalty to historic but racist names and symbols, inarticulate or offensive statements about race, inadequate responses to racist words or acts, tokenism, well-meaning but discriminatory admissions policies.
Recent protests over the killing of George Floyd, coupled with calls for more access and opportunity for underrepresented and minority students in higher education, have only intensified the focus around these issues.
“Notre Dame opened doors for me that no other university could, but Notre Dame has work to do in the way it supports its Black students once it gets them to campus.” – Myisha Eatmon
“It can be isolating at times,” Colón said of the educational experience for non-white students, recalling how a professor once blithely said to him, “Hey, this is probably the only class you have an ‘A’ in.”
“But you persevere,” Colón said. “And then you question: ‘Should I really have to persevere?’”
Eatmon’s time at Notre Dame coincided with an incident in which someone put pieces of fried chicken in the mailboxes of the Black Student Association and the African Student Association. That was 2012.
“Notre Dame opened doors for me that no other university could,” Eatmon said, but “Notre Dame has work to do in the way it supports its Black students once it gets them to campus.”
As a Black student from a working-class background, Eatmon recalled feeling excluded from certain aspects of student life, such as football games and Junior Parents Weekend, as an undergraduate because of lack of money, and wishing the University did more to promote programs and services for students like herself.
Page, the vice president and associate provost for undergraduate affairs, started college in 1973, at the tail end of the civil rights movement.
“Have things changed?” he asked. “In some ways they have. But there are some lingering problems that have not been sufficiently addressed.”
For example, he said, “as a graduate student, I had no African-American faculty members teach or mentor me. And I think it’s still possible for students, both undergraduate and graduate, to go through a full Notre Dame education and have very few teaching or mentoring or advising relationship with an African-American faculty member, or a Latinx faculty member, or an Asian-American faculty member or a native American faculty member. So in that sense, the academy is still not welcoming and diverse in all respects.”
This partly accounts for his continued presence in the classroom, he said, even as an administrator with considerable responsibilities outside of teaching.
“We need to model for the world the kind of University we’re capable of becoming. One that’s welcoming and affirming and in which difference is seen as an advantage rather than a liability.” – Hugh Page
“It is absolutely essential for me to be in the classroom,” he said, both as an example to students of color and as an opportunity to “hear what students are saying, be privy to their experience and make myself an ally” in the push for solutions to issues of diversity and inclusion in the classroom.
More broadly, Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., recently committed to “combat racism wherever we find it” in response to the death of George Floyd and a petition from Black alumni demanding “substantive change that will positively impact the culture and experience for Black students, faculty and staff” on campus.
“We need to model for the world the kind of University we’re capable of becoming,” Page said, “One that’s welcoming and affirming and in which difference is seen as an advantage rather than a liability.”
In this regard, at least, Colón, Eatmon and Suárez all agreed: MSPS, and Building Bridges and MSPS Scholars by extension, is a step in the right direction.
“Building Bridges is a model, and every university that is facing issues with diversity and retention should look to it so see what’s working,” said Eatmon. “I have been at three universities since I left Notre Dame, and the issues are all the same: How do we attract diverse faculty? How do we retain students of color?”
Suárez emphasized “how important Multicultural Student Programs and Services was to me, and how I think it’s a wonderful program that does really good work.”
Such praise is a testament to the quality and commitment of faculty, Bulaoro said. Especially faculty of color, whose very presence in the classroom serves as an example and inspiration to underrepresented and minority students.
“This is only possible if there are faculty who are committed to the undergraduate experience,” Bulaoro said. “We have an institution that has hired not only the most capable researchers, but some of the most committed educators around the country.”
As for the future, Bulaoro said, “We will continue to do what we have always done in the past: to offer programs designed for academic and professional growth, workshops designed to empower our students to combat racism, and provide campus-wide opportunities to celebrate the richness that is found among our diverse campus. We will do this one student at a time.”