SALT LAKE CITY — Beginning this fall, the University of Utah will launch a first-of-its-kind initiative to provide African-American doctoral students a network of peers, mentors, professional development and financial support intended to enhance their success as students and professionals.
The African-American Doctoral Scholars Initiative will provides eligible students with scholarships up to $5,000 annually, among a host of other resources. Applications are being accepted through April 14.
“Many African-American doctoral students are only prepared to conduct research upon graduating,” said Deniece Dortch, program manager for the initiative and postdoctoral research fellow.
“We recognize these gaps and want students to be competitive on the job market once they complete their degrees," Dortch said. "This program provides students with a network of peers, mentors and professional development workshops to set them up for success.”
While the initiative will create a learning and mentoring community for African-American doctoral students, it also will provide financial resources that can be used for research and travel to research and academic conferences.
The cost of attending a research conference, depending on the location and duration of the event, could be $1,000 to $1,500, taking into account conference fees and meals.
"That's a pretty hefty fee for a doctoral student, even the ones who are on fellowship. So what we're doing as part of the initiative, we want to alleviate some of these costs," said Dortch.
Scholarships can also be used to help cover the cost of research and preparing doctoral dissertations. For example, Dortch said she interviewed nearly 70 people for her dissertation and needed to hire someone to transcribe the interviews.
Many doctoral students don't anticipate those costs and lack the financial means to cover them, she said.
Beyond financial assistance, the initiative will offer doctoral students with opportunities to serve on research teams, present at national and international research conferences, attend grant-writing workshops, wellness presentations, dissertation boot camps and work with African-American faculty and alumni mentors.
While many students benefit from networking and mentoring during the first years of their doctoral studies, they can become increasingly isolated, even depressed, as they research and write their dissertations.
"The loneliest part of doctoral studies is after you've completed coursework and once you've become a candidate. At candidacy there's no more checks and balances. There's no more going to class. There's no more having people check in on you on a regular basis. It then becomes between the individual student, their adviser and their relationship," Dortch said.
For African-American students, there can be greater challenges for doctoral candidates "who are one of few in their programs or at their universities or in their colleges, they're living out what we would call tokenism, so both the benefits and burdens of being one of few in their colleges. Also at the same time, students feeling like they have to be the spokesperson for all things black or their ideas are only valued when they're speaking about things related to their phenotype or cultural identity, and not necessarily being valued for their intellectual prowess," Dortch said.
Applicants for the initiative must self-identify as members of the African-American community, be accepted into a doctoral program at the U., be full-time students, have earned at least a 3.0 cumulative GPA, be a U.S. citizen and be able to demonstrate a commitment to understanding black life, history and culture in the United States.
According to the university's headcount of graduate students, there were 81 black, degree-seeking graduate students at U., according to the institution's 2015 fall semester census.
Counting the School of Medicine and the S.J. Quinney College of Law for that year, 46 were doctoral students, said Dortch.
The program was developed by four African-American professors in the U.'s College of Education — William A. Smith, Paula Smith, Karen A. Johnson and Laurence Parker.
“We wanted to provide an opportunity for African-American doctoral students to learn from the academic socialization that we benefited from as we earned our doctoral degrees, but take it one step further to provide a structured, intentional experience that doesn’t rely on an individual’s capacity for mentoring,” said Paula Smith, in a university press release.
Dortch, who joined the U. in fall 2016, will oversee the initiative. Dortch's research emphasis has been on understanding how African-American undergraduate and graduate students experience and respond to race and racism at predominantly white institutions of higher education.
The initiative is sponsored by the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation and the U.'s Office of the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs.