Austin American-Statesman

Increasing diversity by engaging hearts, minds

by Rick Cherwitz and Susan Alvarado Boyd

One in an occasional series. (More on this series)

Austin American-Statesman
September 6, 2003

Will reverting to race-conscious admissions policies of the pre-Hopwood era actually enhance diversity? Traditional approaches to recruitment have not produced a proportionately significant number of minority graduate students. Therefore, tweaking the admissions system and expanding financial aid will not substantially increase the number of minority graduate students.

The current institution-based recruitment model does little to enable minorities to acquire sufficient and relevant insight into graduate education. To achieve greater diversity, we must increase awareness of the value of graduate education and devise experiences allowing minority undergraduates to explore how advanced study can engage their hearts and minds -- helping them fulfill their professional visions and ethical commitments. As the American-Statesman editorial board has asserted, recruiting a critical mass of outstanding Hispanic and African American students requires "a change in mindset."

Previous editorials in this series discussed intellectual entrepreneurship (IE), a University of Texas program and philosophy of graduate education promoting the virtues of discovery, ownership, and accountability. IE challenges students to be greater than the sum of their disciplinary parts, to be "citizen-scholars" contributing both to academe and the community. It offers not only a distinctive vision of education but also a unique mindset for expanding the minority graduate applicant pool, by shifting from institutional recruitment strategies to initiatives addressing students' intellect and passions.
Consider Daisy Fuentes, a UT senior studying biology who, along with nearly two dozen Longhorns and students from local colleges and universities, participates in an IE pre-graduate school internship program. These internships pair undergraduates with faculty mentors and graduate student "buddies," immersing them in the culture of graduate study -- something about which most undergraduates, especially minorities and first generation students, are frequently unaware.

Fuentes' story is a familiar one. As a science student, she always assumed she would become a medical doctor, using her talents to contribute to the wellbeing of others. Until recently, Fuentes never imagined that a graduate degree in a science or education discipline might equip her to fulfill her vision of contributing to the community.

Early in her internship, Fuentes is discovering the desire to develop a comprehensive community health center. When asked what knowledge and skills might be needed to accomplish this, Fuentes has begun to approach her education in a more inductive, entrepreneurial manner. Instead of starting with an academic discipline and then devising a strategy for admission, a practice common among most would-be graduate students, Fuentes is using her desire to contribute to society as a lens for determining the most appropriate fields of study.

While Fuentes' story is just beginning, her participation in the pre-graduate school internship has already produced a major revelation. She learned the importance of approaching academic decisions as an intellectual entrepreneur: to discover, own and be accountable for educational choices. Fuentes discovered that becoming a professor will afford her the greatest potential to affect both academe and the community.

We must create experiences enabling undergraduates to discover how graduate study brings their visions to fruition. This entrepreneurial approach to recruitment doesn't commence with institutions, academic disciplines or questions about "how to apply to graduate school." It begins with students' curiosities and goals driving their lives; it challenges undergraduates to own and be accountable for their educational choices and intellectual development, viewing themselves as active agents who are the recruiters rather than the passive targets of institutional recruitment.

Focusing on admissions and financial aid won't markedly increase diversity. A new mindset is required -- one valuing students as individuals, creating opportunities for them to discover, own and be accountable for their education. Abdicating institutional responsibility by pointing to an insufficient minority applicant pool is no longer acceptable. Believers and doers among the professorate and administration of universities are needed to expend the time and energy demanded by this new, labor-intensive approach to recruitment.

Cherwitz is a professor in communication studies and the division of rhetoric and composition. He is the founder of UT's Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program ( Alvarado Boyd is a doctoral student in the College of Education and an education specialist for the Longhorn Link Program in the Office of the Dean of Students.

Read letter to the editor from Melba Vasquez.