Minorities Attend 'Grad School Boot Camp'

RAMONDA GATES is the first person in her family to attend college. Yet she plans to earn a PhD and become a professor herself someday.

To get help in achieving this goal, Ms. Gates attended a month-long "boot camp for graduate school" this summer.

The Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers (IRT) is designed to prepare minority undergraduates for graduate school and teaching careers in high schools or colleges nationwide.

"These past four weeks are the biggest encouragement that I've had," Ms. Gates says. Everywhere else she has turned for help has left her disappointed. Gates recalls, for example, the time she asked a professor for advice about graduate school and a teaching career. "The conversation was about two minutes long," she says.

IRT was founded in 1990 by Kelly Wise, a former dean of faculty at Phillips Academy, a private school in Andover, Mass., which hosts the program. Since Mr. Wise was in charge of hiring minority teachers for the school, he quickly became aware of the dearth of candidates.

This shortage stems from the low numbers of minorities earning advanced degrees. Only 993 blacks, 708 Hispanics, and 128 native Americans earned PhD degrees in 1991, according to the National Research Council in Washington. Doctorates were awarded to 21,859 whites that year.

"Those just off the PhD and master's track were being rushed by other people," Wise says. So he decided to start a conduit program for strong minority students interested in graduate school and teaching careers. The program targets college juniors, introduces them to graduate-level academic work, and gives them a head start on the graduate-school application process.

Wise has organized a consortium of 25 universities committed to recruiting IRT graduates and providing them with financial aid. About 90 percent of the students receive a tuition waiver and a teaching fellowship when they enroll in graduate school.

Foundations and corporations provide the nearly $300,000 needed to run the summer institute, which covers travel, room and board, and gives students a $1,000 stipend.

"The financial burden is completely lifted and that, of course, is a major consideration for almost any student of color" says Nima Warfield, an IRT participant from Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Four months ago, Edward Gamarra couldn't imagine being able to attend graduate school. He is struggling to pay for his senior year at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "If it hadn't been for this program, I wouldn't be going to graduate school," says Mr. Gamarra, who plans to return to Staten Island, N.Y., and teach in the high school he attended.

During their four weeks on the Phillips Academy campus, the 30 IRT students spent long days discussing readings in informal classes and late nights working on their writing skills.

All seven IRT faculty members are minorities who have negotiated the graduate-school maze successfully themselves. Several are former IRT students now in graduate school.

"Students very rarely see professors of color on predominately white campuses," says Clement White, an IRT faculty member and assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island in Providence. "For many of these students, it is very important to have that model in front of you."

"It's a person you can identify with because it's a person of color," says Angela French, a student from Ohio State University in Columbus.

"I've only had one professor in college that was a minority," says Marie Taylor, an IRT student who attends Connecticut College in New London, Conn.

The IRT instructors also provide a ready source of information on what to expect in graduate school. "We have what we call 'chalk talks,' where we try to give them a sense of the nuts and bolts of what graduate school is like," says Rafael Perez-Torres, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an IRT faculty member.

DURING one of the final chalk-talk sessions, Mr. Perez-Torres told the group: "There's a completely different culture in graduate school."

He recalled his first few days as a graduate student. "All these smart people were saying stuff I didn't know. And I couldn't figure out how they knew all this stuff. Well, what they had done was go to the library and research these issues. You'll be expected to do independent research."

"Nobody's going to tell you anything," says Myrna Santiago, a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley. "You've got to ask." She advises the group to talk to older graduate students and read "all those sheets with bureaucratic rules and guidelines."

Later, a student says: "I've heard some horror stories about competition in graduate schools. You know, people hiding books in the library. Is stuff like that true?"

"The only answer is to focus on your own work," says Gina Taliaferro, who was one of the first IRT students in 1990 and has now completed her master's degree at the University of Chicago.

These sessions also provide a forum to discuss what it's like to be one of few minority graduate students. "We talk about the 'problems' of affirmative action," Professor White says.

"We're dealing with reality. We will be going to universities where people are going to think that we're only there to fill a quota for affirmative action," Ms. Taylor says. "But being here, we know that's not true, and the faculty here knows that's not true. You have to have a strength inside yourself to know the truth."

Although a number of programs encourage minority students who are interested in pursuing advanced math and science degrees, IRT is one of few programs offering support to minorities interested in the humanities.

The program extends beyond the summer institute. Wise provides help with graduate-school applications. IRT collects all the materials from students, writes recommendations, and mails the applications. Application fees, which can be $50 per school, are waived.

Many nonminority students would love to have such practical support. "But most nonminority students have advocates all over the place in the educational system," Perez-Torres says. "This is just one small process of advocacy for people who generally have not had any advocacy in educational institutions. It's a small, small step in catching up."

So far, every IRT graduate has been accepted by at least one graduate school. This fall, 77 graduates of the program will be pursuing PhD and master's degrees. Sixteen students have already earned master's degrees, and 12 will start teaching this fall.

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