Campus News

President’s Desk Q&A: Afia Ofori-Mensa on First-Gen College and Underrepresented Students in STEM

April 17, 2015
Marvin Krislov
President Krislov
Photo credit: John Seyfried

In March, I introduced the President’s Desk Q&A, a monthly feature in which I share candid conversations I’ve had with individuals who play important roles at Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music. Today, I bring you a conversation with Afia Ofori-Mensa.

Afia came to Oberlin in 2010 as an Oberlin College-University of Michigan Partnership Postdoctoral Fellow. She is now the director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. Afia and I sat down to discuss a challenge colleges and universities across the nation face: A lack of underrepresented students and first-generation college students who persist in the STEM fields. Afia shared a great deal about STRONG, a new program she and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Tim Elgren are introducing this summer to increase the likelihood that underrepresented and/or first-generation college students will succeed at Oberlin.

Here is the transcript of our conversation.

Marvin Krislov (M)

To begin, can you tell me a little bit about undergraduate research at Oberlin?

Afia Ofori-Mensa (A)

One of the things I was excited to discover, when I went to the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) conference this past July, was that Oberlin has a really good reputation when it comes to undergraduate research. The language I’ve heard celebrating Oberlin and research often focuses on how many students go on to get PhDs, which I think is an important effect of undergraduate research activity. But I was also glad to hear that people were excited about the undergraduate research itself. It was great to learn from Tim Elgren that the initial conversations that led to CUR being created had taken place at Oberlin.

M

And Tim has been very involved in CUR, so it’s all very full circle.

A

I think one of the reasons that Oberlin has such a great reputation is that there is so much undergraduate research going on here amongst various populations of students. The Office of Undergraduate Research began 20 years ago to coordinate the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program and the McNair Scholars program. Both of those were undergraduate research programs specifically designed for students of color, Pell-eligible students, and first-generation college students to be able to have mentored research opportunities outside of the classroom. Oberlin was one of the first grantees of Mellon Mays. And so, the Office of Undergraduate Research has served primarily to administer fellowship programs that allow underrepresented students those opportunities for mentored research.

The office is undergoing a lot of change right now. We have new staff, we have a new dean, and that means that we have opportunities now to really grow the work and reputation of the office and raise the profile of all of these different undergraduate research opportunities that have been happening in different places at the institution. We can bring the information around these resources together so that students can access them more directly and more easily, and faculty members can be more supported when engaging with students in those kinds of ways.

M

When I came here for my finalist interview, Oberlin had just learned that its application for renewing the McNair program had been denied because the government had revised its formula and it was virtually impossible for smaller institutions to qualify. That’s when we started the Oberlin College Research Fellows Program, which you also are running and supporting, correct?

A

Yes. As the director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, I am also the director of the Oberlin College Research Fellows Program, which is the commitment that Oberlin College made to continue supporting those populations of students with mentored research opportunities even after McNair wasn’t on campus anymore. Now Mellon Mays and the Oberlin College Research Fellowship Program are both administered by the Office of Undergraduate Research—by me, with support from Administrative Assistant Diana Tebo—and STRONG, the Science and Technology Research Opportunities for a New Generation program, is going to be kind of a third arm of that, another program that also serves Pell-eligible students, first-generation college students, and students of color.

M

I am really excited about this new initiative you and Dean Elgren are spearheading. Tell me more about STRONG, including how it got started.

A

At the end of each summer, all the students who are Mellon Mays and Oberlin College Research Fellows present their research for the campus community. Tim Elgren, who had just started, attended that presentation in July, and we chatted afterward about a program at Hamilton for underrepresented students in the sciences that he had been speaking with you about and that he was hoping to emulate here. I was really excited when he first brought it up, but he had to figure out funding and some other details. We met again in October, and I said, “Give me the update. What can I do to support you, what do you need?” And he said, “Oh, I need you to make it happen. I need you to design it.” (LAUGHTER)

So that’s what I have been working on since November: How we can take some of the elements of the Hamilton program but really make it an Oberlin-specific effort to bring in students who are of color, Pell-eligible, first-generation college students, and also women to engage in research opportunities even before their first year starts at Oberlin. That’s really important for a number of reasons.

First, it gives those populations a chance to acclimate to some of the challenging aspects of the college environment, perhaps in a region different than where they grew up. It gives them time to form connections early on in their career here that will support them throughout their time at Oberlin. It also has been demonstrated in a lot of research that getting students involved in undergraduate research before their junior and senior year, which is often when they would otherwise start, is incredibly beneficial. So this is going to be a program where students have an opportunity to work directly in the lab of a faculty member in the summer before their first year.

M

How many students do you think will be involved in the program the first summer?

A

Six to ten, to start.

M

But this program may well grow over time?

A

Yes.

M

How long will the students be here during the summer? Take me through the mechanics of what this program is going to look like.

A

The students will come at the beginning of July, right after the July 4 weekend, and they’ll be here for four weeks. During that time, they’ll be placed with a faculty member via a matching program that happens beforehand. The faculty members who have volunteered to participate in this first group have given us descriptions of their projects, and we’ll share those with the students who are applying for the program. The students will have an opportunity to rank their preferences, and then the faculty members will get together and evaluate skill sets and interests and determine which students might be the best fit for their lab group. Each STRONG student will actually work directly with a faculty member on campus who already has a vibrant, active group of undergraduate researchers working with them.

These rising first-year students just out of high school will work directly with Oberlin faculty members on really exciting projects in collaboration with students in the sciences who already have some research experience, but who will be an important part of their support network also. A lot of current Oberlin students have noted that what helped them to persist in science majors was that they had other students in their dorms, in their student groups, who could help them out with studying and offer them confidence. This program will be building those connections early.

The students will live in a dorm together and through the first year, and they’ll have their own RA. And in the summer, in addition to working full time in a faculty member’s lab with their research group, we’re also going to have some workshop content that is designed to help students with things like study skills, math skills, and data collection and processing skills.

M

That’s great!

A

They’ll eat in Stevenson with the vibrant community of folks on campus in the summer. We will have community-building opportunities for them to participate in as part of the Oberlin Summer Research Institute, which is the broader umbrella summer research programming that happens here, run by Marcelo Vinces, director for Learning, Education, and Research in the Sciences, and myself.

Marcelo and I collaborate to put on workshop and social programming to really help all of the students who are on campus doing summer research—we have students doing research in the humanities and the social sciences, too. The STRONG students will have an opportunity at the end of the month to see those presentations that I mentioned earlier that the Oberlin College Research Fellows and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows produce, and to put together a poster to present their work in the Celebration of Undergraduate Research that will happen at the beginning of October. They’ll be able to move all the way through the process of doing research—from learning the basic skills of being in a lab, all the way to being able to present to a spectrum of folks both in and outside their field.

M

Are there other opportunities associated with the STRONG program?

A

When I was building and designing the program, someone mentioned that a lot of first-year students have a really challenging time figuring out what they’re going to do for their first winter term. So, students who are in STRONG, by agreement with their faculty mentor, can continue in that same lab as their winter term project.

M

Are we addressing issues related to the expectation of summer employment?

A

Yes, that’s an important issue because it’s not easy to just go home and find a job for the last few weeks of summer. So, the program will pay students $2,000 for the time that they spend working in the faculty mentor’s lab. The program will also cover the cost of housing and dining over the summer, social activities, and travel to and from Oberlin. STRONG students will also get an award in their first year to cover much of the cost of their textbooks. These things will offset that expected contribution from the summer.

M

That’s great. So, we know that the lack of underrepresented students and first-generation college students who persist in the STEM fields is a national challenge. How will this program help address that?

A

There is evidence represented from the Hamilton program and from broader research that suggests that undergraduate research really contributes meaningfully to a student’s undergraduate education. The idea here is that we might be able to create a better network and a system of support for students who come in interested in the sciences. We have found that it’s often the intro courses that derail students: They will take that first exam and not do as well on it as they might want to, and so they lose confidence and determine that science is not for them.

That can be the end of the line for a lot of people; they just switch majors. I think that one of the successes of programs like STRONG that has already been demonstrated is that they encourage students to persist in STEM fields. But even more, they have the outcome of encouraging underrepresented and underserved students to persist to graduation at all.

That’s one of the outcomes we’re hoping for and expect here. Also, the more of these programs that exist and the more successes they are able to demonstrate, the more these models will proliferate in higher education. People will see that we can design models of education that better serve folks who are not necessarily from middle and upper class families, who are not necessarily from suburban neighborhoods.

One of the things I am really excited to see in higher education is a shift in the language, from talking about students who aren’t well prepared, to talking about models of education that don’t necessarily serve students from a variety of backgrounds. I think that rhetorical shift is important because it is not putting the onus on the student. It’s not about you: You didn’t do what you were supposed to do in high school, or you didn’t get what you were supposed to get in high school. It’s about recognizing that, as institutions of higher learning, we’re increasingly serving populations from all different kinds of backgrounds, from all different kinds of places, and from all different levels of preparation. We need to think about models of education more expansively to reach all those people rather than continuing in models of education that reach a small number of people very successfully but then leave all those other people behind.

M

The STRONG program is entirely consistent with Oberlin’s values, and it’s something I am really excited about. Diversity in STEM fields is a national challenge, so I am really glad that Oberlin is going to lead on this. Thank you so much for taking this on, and kudos to you and to Dean Elgren for taking the initiative.

A

Thank you. Yes, I think Oberlin is really well positioned to do this because we have such strong programs in the sciences already, and so it’s really just taking those resources and moving them in this direction.

M

I’m grateful to the faculty members who have expressed interest, and I assume that you are happy to hear from any others who read this column and get inspired to join the effort?

A

Always! Yes.

M

Great. Your turn!

A

When I went to the Association of American Colleges and Universities conference in January, people were talking about the changing undergraduate population that we are going to be serving: students who are Pell-eligible, first-generation college students, and students of color. More than ever before, we are going to need to increase the services we provide to these populations. I have all kinds of grand ideas and fantasies of what that might look like: What if, at Oberlin, we took a radical approach and said that, for one year, we were only going to admit students who were first-generation college students, students of color, and Pell-eligible students? We could call it the 1835 Initiative—reconnecting with our historical legacy—and reimagine the campus and the curriculum around that. But I don’t think I understand enough about college finances and those kinds of things to know what might get in the way. So if I were to propose such a project to you, what would your response be?

M

We are thinking about questions such as these more broadly in the context of the strategic planning process, which is considering not only what the education of the future should look like, but also who are the students of the future and how to make all this financially sustainable. We are looking at changing demographics and asking what we need to do to make sure we are serving the students of this nation, and a global population as well. And that may mean adapting in terms of some of our programs.

Admissions is only part of the story, and I think you’ve recognized that implicitly. It’s not just admitting students and yielding them; it’s also ensuring their academic and social success while they are here. We are raising a lot of money for financial aid—that’s a top priority of the comprehensive campaign. We have to balance a lot of different things and the budget of the college has to deal with a lot of aspects, including most significantly faculty and staff salaries as well as buildings and facilities and programs and so forth.

So, I think your vision of doing more in terms of embracing underserved populations is completely consistent with what Oberlin does and has done, and I know it’s in the hearts of everyone. We are trying stretch our budget by fundraising and also by trying to be very smart about the way we do work. If you and others can help us think about improving the way we do these things as part of the strategic planning process, you know you are cordially welcome to contribute all the great ideas that I know you have. So let’s say that this will be an ongoing dialogue. How about that?

A

I love that. So you started off saying that you are really excited about the STRONG program. What makes you the most excited about it?

M

Since I’ve been in higher education, I have been concerned about the challenge of not only first-gen, low income, and underrepresented students more broadly, but particularly in the STEM fields. And I, anecdotally, have some of the same discussions you have. I meet incoming students and many of them are very excited about being a doctor or a scientist, but there’s not as much persistence in that area as one would hope. There’s so much power in the model that you and Dean Elgren have come up with because there’s mentoring on three different levels. There’s a faculty mentor, there’s a peer group in one’s class, and then there’s an upperclass mentoring process. There is continuity, which is incredibly powerful. I think this is the kind of thing that national funders and commentators are going to be very excited about because we have a chance to really make a difference here. It could then be scaled to other campuses as well, and I love the idea that we are really fulfilling our ideals. It’s true that we have done a lot of things on the leadership level as you alluded to, but I think this is the next step.

A

In my conversations about strategic planning and also about this program and related things, the idea of resilience has come up over and over again: How necessary it is, not only for underrepresented students, and not only for students in STEM, but for all students to learn to stay the course. I wonder, for you as somebody who has thought a lot about higher education, who has interfaced with people in many different roles, what recommendations would you have for how people in various roles can cultivate resilience in our undergraduate student body.

M

As a teacher, one of the things I try to do is catch challenges before they develop into crises. And so, everything from when people stop showing up to class, or they seem to be falling asleep or are underprepared in class, or they turn in sub-standard work, I try to get to them as fast as I can. Whether it’s talking with them after class, or inviting them to meet with me privately, or contacting the class dean. But that’s a lot to put on an individual faculty member.

A

It is.

M

I appreciate the fact that the members of our faculty are so dedicated to doing that, but it would be great if we could have more people participating in the effort to identify challenges before they become crises. Sometimes the most effective people are actually one’s peers. That’s why POSSE is such a powerful model because the students support each other so explicitly. I think this is something that’s a communal activity.

I came from a not-super-great high school myself. When I went to college, I really struggled my first semester, and I was in danger of not passing my calculus class, and for me, who had been used to doing quite well, that was quite frightening. Fortunately, I did have someone who was helpful in that he told me to get a tutor.

I hope that students here understand that even before they start experiencing challenges, there are ways to get support. If they do have challenges in ways that they didn’t anticipate, they need to address them immediately and not wait until the end of the semester. People should not be ashamed of needing help, particularly early in their career, but even later in their career. It’s okay to ask for help. I think sometimes students are embarrassed to ask, and I just hope that this program helps make that less likely.

A

I recently had a conversation with a faculty member about the STRONG program. This person was a first-generation college student and said they’d never felt so much like they had stepped onto Mars than they had on their first day of college. That experience, I’m guessing, is pretty common among the populations we are working to serve.

I think what you said about people accessing their resources and about the community creating a culture where that’s what people do, that they access the resources, that they figure out how they can connect with the people who can support them, I think that’s really important. So I would love to be part of that ongoing dialogue about how do we create that culture.

M

Absolutely. And I know that recruiting faculty of color, first-gen faculty, but also faculty who are enthusiastic about this, is very important. My experience is that people come to Oberlin because they care about these issues and working with folks. Sometimes people don’t know exactly how to do that. So we may need intermediaries, whether it’s older students or other faculty to help students navigate, but if this place can’t do it, then it’s hard for me to imagine that any other place in the country can. I have the utmost confidence that we can do it. So, thank you for everything you do and I look forward to continuing the dialogue.

A

Excellent. Thank you so much for taking this time to talk.

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