Under-Represented Students Visit Campus, Feel “At Home” at Illinois During ASPIRE

September 24, 2015

“We believe in the mission of trying to broaden participation; we believe in the value of diversity.” – Daniel Wong, Associate Director of the Graduate College's Educational Equity Program

An undergraduate student participates in the ASPIRE Application Workshop.

With the Graduate College and individual departments, who helped provide meals, footing the bill, under-represented undergraduate students from all over the U.S. visited Illinois on September 20–22, 2015, as part of ASPIRE, a campus visit and early application program of the Graduate College’s Educational Equity Program.

According to Director Ave Alvarado, the mandate of her office is to provide access to the underserved:

"As a federal land-grant institution, Illinois indeed must assume its responsibility to make opportunities for education accessible to everyone so that we may produce an educated citizenry able to compete in the global marketplace. Our aim is to provide equitable opportunities for students from populations who are and have been historically underrepresented in our graduate programs."

ASPIRE's goal, Alvarado says, is to introduce these students to "the resources and opportunities available to them at the University of Illinois."

An early application program, she goes on to explain how ASPIRE works. "The program not only includes a campus visit, but students are able to participate in a series of webinars that cover a breadth of topics intended to shepherd them through the graduate school application process."

The webinars address the following topics:

An undergraduate student pays close attention during Daniel Wong's workshop on how to apply to graduate school.
  • “Graduate Education at Illinois”
  • The Illinois Graduate School Application, “Apply Yourself”;
  • The Personal Statement, “Marketing Yourself”;
  • The Curriculum Vitae and Resume;
  • Letters of Recommendation, “Who Knows You Best”;
  • Preparing to Take the GRE; and
  • “Making the Most of Your Campus Visit.”

She reports that participants were asked to begin working on their applications in August, then, once on campus, they attended an application sorkshop to deal with questions they might have had about the application itself.

According to Associate Director Daniel Wong, ASPIRE has a great track record in terms of recruiting underrepresented students to come to Illinois for graduate school.

 “We encourage departments to identify promising students, especially underrepresented students that they’d be interested in taking a second look at, and bringing them to campus….But we find that it’s really, really helpful in making a strong case for these students because the departments get to interact with them; the students then get to see that we’re interested in them, and so we get a lot of students that way.

Adhering to the early-bird-gets-the-worm principle, Wong indicates that research has shown that early, proactive recruiting is key: it makes students feel wanted:

Daniel Wong, Assistant Director of the Graduate College’s Educational Equity Program, shares numerous practical tips about how to apply for grad school with ASPIRE participants.

“Part of the onus is on the department, if they bring a student, to consider making them an offer before they would normally make offers to graduate students so that we’re first through the door—the first person to reach out to them, that is proactive about it in bringing them, and wanting them to come. Students appreciate that. They say, ‘Okay, I’m wanted.’”

In addition to making students feel welcome, another goal of ASPIRE was to foster networking. From a dinner with Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, Dean of the Graduate College, and Ave Alvarado, Director of the Graduate College Educational Equity Programs, the evening they arrived, to the many visits with folks from their prospective departments, through Monday evening’s “Networking” event, students had the opportunity to both meet and network with Illinois administrators, faculty in their prospective departments, and even other graduate students.

In addition to lots of networking, most activities provided useful info about how to apply, how to get funding, plus numerous other practical tips. For example, on Sunday evening, a panel of Illinois grad students shared their own acquired wisdom, “Things You Should Learn from Your Visit,” having recently been down the same road themselves.

Undergraduate students attending the ASPIRE campus visit pay rapt attention to Wong's presentation.

And Wong’s sessions on Monday were replete with practical advice, for instance, the difference between a CV and a resume. He also explained the different levels of professors and whom to choose (and not choose) for letters of recommendation. He indicated that faculty respect another faculty member's recommendation, adding that, in most cases, the more well known a researcher is in their field, the better.

Wong also doled out some "insider advice," such as: follow the application instructions exactly. For instance, if the instructions say three letters of reference, and the applicant includes seven, he indicated that busy professors (and even he himself) might be tempted to pass over the applicant because he/she can’t follow instructions. He also encouraged students to seek out their own funding. He says this would open the door to any researcher's lab—no busy researcher would turn down a “free” student for whom he/she doesn’t have to supply funding.

As part of his discussion on obtaining funding, Wong proudly showed off the Grad College’s Fellowship Opportunities Database—evidently so well-known and comprehensive that many universities just point to it rather than bothering to re-invent the wheel. In fact, the database is such a complete a record of all fellowships available that it includes many fellowship opportunities for which Illinois grad students might not be eligible.

Elizabeth Torres, a University of New Mexico speech and hearing sciences and psychology major.

The prospective grad students all seemed duly impressed by the wealth of information and networking oportuntities they received during ASPIRE. For instance, for Elizabeth Torres, who is studying speech and hearing sciences and psychology with a neuroscience emphasis at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, indicated that Illinois is the first university she has visited, and she was wowed.

“So far it has been an incredible blessing; I feel so incredibly fortunate to be here. It’s a wonderful program. It’s been sort of a godsend really. It’s fantastic.”

Did she find the visit helpful? “Absolutely!" she responds.

"Every person that we’ve had speak with us, everyone that has facilitated the meetings," she continues, "they’ve offered so much information and a mentorship that is equal to any other mentor that I’ve ever had. We can just reach out to these individuals, and they’re so very open about the information that they share. The webinars that we’ve done with the ASPIRE program have been very informative as well, and each individual is very welcoming. It really makes you feel at home immediately.”

Adrian Gomez, a chemistry undergrad at Cal State, L.A.

Will Torres end up at Illinois? “If I were to be accepted here,” she admits, “I would absolutely accept.”

Torres is particularly encouraged about the interdisciplinary emphasis she experienced at Illinois.

“I’m really excited to hear about the interdisciplinary ideas within the university, because that is exactly how it is for me with speech and hearing science and neuro-communication. They go hand in hand.”

Another visitor during ASPIRE, Adrian Gomez, who attends California State University in L.A., admitted that although he was on his 7th campus visit, this was the best one so far. Gomez, who wants to study analytical chemistry, reports:

“I’ve been to Berkley, Stanford, Davis, UCLA,” he admits, “but this is the top one that I have experienced as far as recruiting. I’m pretty much sold. I would recommend it to everyone.”

Alvarado agrees that the campus visit had a positive impact on the students, and many of them will most likely end up at Illinois.

"I received nothing but positive feedback from the students who visited the campus. Aside from the warmth and excitement the students felt from the departments they visited, the graduate students they met, and the staff in the Graduate College, I believe that they found Illinois to be an institution that would provide them with what they need while in pursuit of an advanced degree. If at the end of the graduate school application process they are convinced that Illinois and the graduate program(s) in which they are most interested are able to offer them the support that they need to be successful here, I am sure all of them will enroll. Nonetheless, I am confident that the vast majority of the ASPIRE participants will at the very least apply to Illinois.

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: Grad, Undergrad Education Reform, Underserved Minorities, 2015

For additional istem articles about programs in the Educational Equity Programs Office that target under-represented students, see:

Adrian Gomez (left) and other undergrads during their ASPIRE campus visit.