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.”

Fellow alumna Shameeka Lewis also learned of alternative tracks while enrolled in the internship. At the start of the upcoming academic year, she will be receiving an Education Specialist degree and conducting research on Native American and indigenous populations in the School Psychology Department at San Diego State University.

“I didn’t even know about school psychology before IE,” Lewis said. “I knew I wanted to work with kids, and I had a background in psychology, so I would just say I was going to be a child psychologist. Without IE, I never would have made the connection to the graduate program in California. With the help of my mentor, I opened my perspective.”

Similarly, Daniel Muñoz, currently a doctoral student of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, articulated that the program helped him not only to identify his goals but also to achieve them.

“Without IE, I wouldn’t have become so integrated into the philosophy department or so eager to study. It was an eye-opening experience,” he said. “For the first time in my life, I was seriously thinking about what would happen after graduation, and it was clear how much work I had to do to get into graduate school.”

In order to discover more about their aspirations, undergraduate students who are enrolled in the internship program complete short projects, write reflective essays, and meet several times a semester to discuss their experiences. According to Cherwitz, almost every department at the University has enrolled students in the course, and the varied backgrounds are conducive to furthering the objectives of Intellectual Entrepreneurship.

“We ask our interns to be anthropologists of their disciplines. In other words, if a student is a physics major, we ask them to interrogate the culture of physics. We want them to be immersed in their disciplinary culture,” he said. “Our goal is not to teach students how to ‘do their discipline’, something they already know well, but rather to encourage them to reflect upon the value of their discipline. Graduate education is often very paternalistic—as faculty we often try to clone ourselves by producing students who look like us and who can perpetuate our discipline. IE, however, jettisons this sort of paternalistic model and encourages faculty to be proud of their mentees no matter what those students decide to do, whether they look like us or not. IE isn’t a program that seeks to turn people into non-academics or businesspeople. This is a program that empowers students to do what they want—to discover, own and be accountable for their education.”

An example of the facilitation of interdisciplinary collaboration is the assembling of several areas of study in examining an issue.

“Any problem that this country faces is going to be so complex that no one discipline or sector of society can solve it. Nobody owns a problem,” Cherwitz said. “Back when IE was located in the Graduate School, we put together a ‘Synergy Group’ composed of members of the community and graduate students from a wide array of academic disciplines. Collectively they took on the problem of overcrowded emergency rooms. In essence, we conducted an action-oriented seminar. This represented one of the major goals of IE: to study issues and problems with the objective not only of discovering knowledge but leveraging that knowledge for social good.”

The fusing of the original philosophy with the demographically inspired enterprise has resulted in an empowering atmosphere for interns.

“IE brings out the talent residing within the students here at the university. It definitely motivates and encourages the students to chase their dreams and gives reassurance that every student is intelligent,” Momin said. “Everyone involved in this program, including the mentors and faculty, is highly determined to make sure all of the students are going above and beyond their potential. I never thought that I would apply to an Ivy League school, but I was shown that, with my perseverance and ambition, I can conquer any of my goals. It was a very extraordinary experience that made me feel important and successful.”

Instilling self-efficacy in students is vital to increasing diversity in the academy, according to Texas State Senator Judith Zaffirini.

“One of the best ways to improve diversity in higher education is to improve education for all students while focusing on each student’s unique strengths, instead of his or her weaknesses. The Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium does exactly that. Its crown jewel, the Pre Graduate School Internship Program, for example, does this by demystifying higher education and helping students identify and pursue their passions,” she said. “Whenever I speak to young people, I tell them that I don’t want them to be like me or to match my accomplishments; I want them to be significantly better and to surpass my accomplishments. IE provides students with an excellent foundation to achieve that goal.”

For dozens of testimonies and stories, visit the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Facebook page.

For more on diversity and IE, visit ut-ie.com.