The Collegian
Saturday, July 04, 2020

OPINION: Access to graduate school

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

I write this as a call for the University of Richmond to develop formal, faculty-led support groups for under-resourced students who aspire to attend graduate school. UR should support these students transition from high school by helping them think through their coursework and introducing students to professors who are doing research in their target areas.

Supporting students with this initiative will serve to disrupt the pipeline of stereotypical students that are identified as high potential by their professors or UR. Fighting the biases that propel students with private school backgrounds, relatives with higher education and middle class or wealthy economic backgrounds into the available avenues for advancement is a must. 

Studying Political Science and Leadership Studies, I hope to pursue a graduate school education to develop a stronger skill set to assist students from backgrounds like my own. Assistance with the graduate school admissions process is something I realized has to start well before a college student’s senior year.

I am a Ghanaian American student from Ewing, New Jersey, who grew up in an environment where 80% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch. Finding my footing in the Ewing public school system was difficult, and growing up in the United States as an immigrant warranted its racial and cultural challenges. These challenges, in addition to financial insecurity, left a trail of imposter syndrome throughout my courses on the AP and Honors track. 

During high school, having a college access program that showed me what courses to take and what test scores I needed and held panels of college students from my background was my saving grace. As a kid balancing my ambitions, extracurriculars and 25-hour workweek at a fast food job, acceptance into that college access program changed the trajectory of my life. I always wondered how my life would have been without the support of a group of people who were committed to helping me get to the next level- and when I got to UR, that wonder unfortunately became first-hand experience. 

At UR, my first time away from home, I was alone in figuring out how to navigate college. I showed up to my first day of classes freshman year without any books because I was still waiting for professors to give out book lists as they did in high school, unaware that the list was online. It’s funny now, I know, but first semester freshman year, that type of embarrassment swallowed my confidence. 

When I stepped out of the classroom, I knew that I needed to find opportunities to fulfill my own aspirations and develop my social life. I took on two internships, one working for the Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade and another for the UR men’s basketball team as a student manager. 

Campus was a food desert most nights after the dining hall closed other than Dean’s Den and ETC. Without any money or guidance, I spent my freshman year starving, lacking support, feeling broken and lost on the path to graduate school that I hoped for. Exclusive social networks that govern resources and information, made up of students identified by UR as high-potential hopefuls, have a tendency to keep information within their bubbles, and so without the proper support I was stumped. 

Do I need research experience for graduate school? Do I need to be close with a professor to ask if they might need a research assistant? Are there paid opportunities? How soon do I need to be developing my own work? Can I get a fee waiver for my applications? These were all questions I had, and I didn’t know who could answer them.

Often, students like me do not know where to start. To develop a firm foundation students need a program with features such as a weekly check-in to help students choose a career field, compile lists of graduate schools and application requirements, and set up a schedule for getting all the documents in on time for each school. Not only this, but students need people to assist them when developing drafts of personal statements, academic research statements, cover letters, diversity statements and scholarship essays. The revision process for all of these components is often long and difficult, and having faculty who have been through this process who can assist is important. 

There are small pockets of students at UR from my background who understood these details early on. UR has developed strategies that have allowed them to get away with cherry-picking which individuals from under-resourced backgrounds they choose to support and that veil only works to cover up the truth. The longer I have been here, the more it feels as if information is available on a need-to-know basis. It seems as if the information I need is not meant for people like me.

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If UR is going to shake its perception as an institution where under-resourced students are guests in the homes of students with access, it needs to overcome issues of inequity and develop social safety nets that alleviate those burdens.

I am a rising senior now, and students from my hometown with similar financial profiles to me  still aspire to be Spiders. Active steps need to be taken for me to be able to advocate for UR toward them. I will not encourage students to apply to an institution that cannot support them if they do not fall into a narrow network of under-resourced individuals that UR is prepared to help.

Contact contributor Jesse Amankwaah at jesse.amankwaah@richmond.edu.

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