According to the National Center for Education Statistics, graduate enrollment for racial and ethnic minorities is increasing. A propitious approach in continuing to increase the level of diversity among graduate schools is the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium (IE) in the Division of Diversity & Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.
The consortium comprises several programs, such as the Pre-Graduate School Internship, a course in which students pick a graduate student and/or faculty mentor and submit a contract or syllabus outlining their individualized objectives for the semester. Examples of submitted goals are conducting research projects, networking at conferences, and simply educating oneself on careers in a particular area of study. Each semester, about two-thirds of the undergraduate participants are either economically disadvantaged, underrepresented minorities, or first-generation students. Interestingly, however, IE is not a targeted initiative.
“Diversity is not the cause or the reason for this program, but it is the consequence of this program,” IE founder and director Rick Cherwitz said. “We need to take advantage of every mechanism available, including both targeted programs and programs like Intellectual Entrepreneurship, which may have special consequences for underrepresented populations precisely because it integrates and improves education overall.”
Dr. Richard Cherwitz (Ph.D., University of Iowa, 1978) is a member of the Rhetoric faculty in the Department of Communication Studies and in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing. He is the Founder and Director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium. Dr. Cherwitz’ essays have appeared in such journals as Philosophy and Rhetoric, Argumentation, & The Quarterly Journal of Speech.
The primary goal of Intellectual Entrepreneurship, to enable students to discover the worth of their credentials, originated at its conception in 1997, when the Fifth Circuit Court had recently illegalized the use of affirmative action in Texas admissions in Hopwood v. Texas, and Cherwitz occupied the title of Associate Dean in the Graduate School at the university.
“When I created IE, it was devoted to graduate students, and its purpose was to help Masters and Ph.D.s see the enormous value of their degrees and provide them with skills to do whatever they want when they graduate,” Cherwitz said. “It was an enormous program, with 16 different courses and workshops that were open to any graduate student, and close to 5,000 students participated. When it first developed, IE was not geared toward undergraduates, and it was not a diversity program. But that connection is an important one.”
In 2003, the Supreme Court effectively repealed the Hopwood decision by ruling in favor of the University of Michigan Law School in Grutter v. Bollinger. The same year, Cherwitz returned full-time to his position as a professor in the Department of Communication Studies. By 2006, IE’s role as a vehicle for increasing diversity in higher education was becoming clear.
“When I was an Associate Dean in the Graduate School, my boss, who was a demographer, came to me and asked, ‘Do you know anything about the demographics of the 5,000 graduate students who had enrolled in IE?’ I said, ‘No, I know about them academically.’ I was thinking like an academic dean, worried about funding my program by emphasizing its academic integrity,” Cherwitz said. “But we quickly discovered that a disproportionate number of students in the program were Hispanic, African-American, or Native American. When we asked them why they enrolled, they said the IE courses demystified the academy and helped them discover the value of their expertise in a variety of arenas—something that resonated significantly with those populations.”
“If these statistics are accurate, and we’re challenged as a university to increase diversity in graduate education and among the faculty ranks, then we have to take this philosophy to undergraduates early in their career and hope it might have some impact. Therefore, we decided to start promoting IE as a diversity-oriented initiative. Our hunch was absolutely accurate. Since 2003 nearly 3,000 undergraduates have participated in the Pre Graduate School Internship, the majority of whom are members of underserved groups.”
President of non-profit Excelencia in Education Sarita Brown echoed the sentiment of the somewhat incidental yet important impact of the program. In 2008, the Pre-Graduate Internship won the distinction of the graduate-level “Example of Excelencia,” an award granted to institutions that demonstrate an advancement of the educational outcomes for Latino students.
A not-for-profit organization founded in 2004 in Washington, DC, Excelencia in Education has become a trusted information source on the status of Latino educational achievement, a major resource for influencing policy at the institutional, state, and national levels, and a widely recognized advocate for expanding evidence-based practices to accelerate Latino student success in higher education.
“The focus in the nomination period of the award is not necessarily programs that are overtly designed for Latino or Hispanic students, but rather programs that meet these students’ needs,” Brown said. “It is a program that serves first-generation college-goers and students who are particularly low-income, often the first in their family not only to engage in studies but also in the pursuit of a career in the academy. And the very nature of the Internship is one that helps students demystify the academy and find their home in formal higher education. It aligns very well with the needs of first-generation college-goers.”
Former intern Shama Momin, who will be attending Columbia University for a Master of Arts in Psychology starting in the fall of 2016, offered her own account of the demystification of higher education as a result of the mentorship program.
“Before I got involved in IE, I wasn’t aware of the fact that a single path is not what everyone takes to get to their career goals,” Momin said. “I was very critical of myself and thought that if I didn’t get into a PhD program right out of undergrad, I would be a failure. IE changed my mindset and taught me that no matter how many times you fail, if you keep trying and working hard to reach your goals, you will get there no matter how different your path looks from someone else. There is no one specific path. Everyone has a different route and that’s what makes us all very different and unique.”