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Director of UNCF/Mellon Program Shares Insights on Recruiting from HBCUs

Cynthia Spence
Cynthia Spence, an associate professor of sociology at Spelman College, spoke to Duke faculty on November 1.
By Hanna Grimm
Communications Intern

To illustrate one of the biggest obstacles in recruiting more students from historically black colleges and universities for graduate study, Cynthia Spence points to a time when she sat on a panel with representatives from elite, predominantly white institutions (PWIs).

“We were talking about students who attended HBCUs engaging in research and going on to become researchers in a variety of disciplines,” Spence said, “when an individual on the panel who was from an elite institution said, ‘They don’t engage in research at HBCUs.’ ”

Spence, an associate professor of sociology at Spelman College, was taken aback by that comment and asked that person whether she had ever visited an HBCU or done any research to inform that opinion. Her colleague had done neither.

“I believe that her impression might represent the impression of others within the PWI community,” Spence told a group of faculty during a recent visit to Duke. “One of the things that we’ve got to do if we want to engage in outreach is that we have to first debunk some myths about HBCUs.”

Spence has been debunking misconceptions about HBCUs for much of her career. As director of the United Negro College Fund/Mellon Programs, she creates and manages a suite of programs geared toward preparing future faculty and career enhancement.

The Duke Graduate School and the Duke University Center of Exemplary Mentoring hosted two faculty conversations with Spence on Nov. 1, where she shared tips for recruiting graduate students from HBCUs. At the first talk, Spence met with members of Duke’s STEM faculty. The second conversation was with faculty in the humanities and social sciences.

During her discussions with faculty, Spence broke down some of the most common misconceptions about research at HBCUs, such as myths that faculty at HBCUs don’t engage in research, that they don’t have similar research interests or portfolios as their PWI counterparts, and that the universities lack research infrastructure.

Cynthia Spence speaks to Assistant Deans Alan Kendrick (left) and Francisco Ramos
Cynthia Spence speaks to Assistant Deans
Alan Kendrick (left) and Francisco Ramos
in between sessions with Duke faculty.

“These are all vast generalizations,” Spence said. “Some schools may lack a research emphasis, but many have very robust research infrastructure.”

Spence also tackled the notions that HBCU students are not interested in pursuing advanced degrees, lack the intellectual capacity for it, or are unwilling to leave their comfort zones in pursuit of research opportunities.

“There’s great diversity within the HBCU community, but sometimes race and ethnicity become the master status of the individual,” she said.

Jacqueline Looney, senior associate dean for graduate programs at the Duke Graduate School, emphasized building connections and collaborating with HBCUs in order to increase recruitment of students from diverse backgrounds.

“I think we need to get beyond the mindset of ‘This is a student of color’ and do what we would do for any student that we were interested in,” Looney said. “I know that there are more hurdles we need to cross for underrepresented students …. I think we have the foundations, but now it is a matter of building connections and collaborations with historically black colleges.”

During the session with humanities and social sciences faculty, Spence discussed the importance of mentoring, which she said strengthens students’ self-confidence and helps students discover where their interests and talents can best be addressed. Mentoring, Spence said, directly affects the diversity pipeline.

Efforts to increase mentorship, Spence noted, is one of the key features of the UNCF/Mellon Programs model for preparing underrepresented students in the humanities and social sciences for the graduate school pipeline. That model also includes programming and resources to help undergraduates develop a robust research experience and prepare for the GRE and graduate school.

Spence also shared some strategies for building connections and reaching out to HBCU students. Early identification of prospective graduate students is particularly important in STEM, she said, because those undergraduates tend to cluster in pre-med, so institutions need to show them that there are other career possibilities for those interested in science.

Early identification would also help develop mentoring relationships, said Spence, who emphasized the benefits of undergraduate research collaborations between PWIs and HBCUs, such as bridge programs that let HBCU students do part of their training at R1 research institutions. Such mentoring relationships not only help students with an affinity for science figure out how they can best use their strengths, but also help faculty mentors broaden their perspective as well.

“When you can do one-one-one with a student, you begin to understand how to engage someone of a different color, how to engage students who perhaps don’t look like you and don’t have backgrounds like yours,” Spence said. “So mentoring is very important for the mentor and the mentee. The mentor becomes more broadly educated because of this interaction.”

HBCU myths and facts