Fellow graduate students are the best resource for honest information about the climate, program, and people."
–Derek Maness, Director of Recruitment, Office for Diversity in Graduate Education
Monday, January 25, 2016

Finding a home away from home

Derek Maness with Ambassadors

Graduate student ambassador program helps students get settled in Minnesota


he University of Minnesota defines diversity as not only a driving force, but a necessary condition for academic excellence. A diverse student body contributes to a rich graduate education experience – one in which students with vastly different backgrounds and experiences come together to learn, research, and create new knowledge.

But for many students who are traditionally underrepresented in graduate education – and may be unaccustomed to the state’s climate, customs. and culture – making a smooth transition to the land of lakes, mosquitos, midwestern winters, and the culture of “Minnesota Nice” can be difficult.

The UMN Graduate Ambassadors Program is an initiative that aims to make these students aware of the opportunities available and to ease their transition into graduate school at the University of Minnesota.

The program is the brainchild of Derek Maness from the Office for Diversity in Graduate Education and Dr. Jon Gottesman, director of the Office of Biomedical Graduate Research, Education and Training (BGREAT). Maness and Gottesman first cooked up the idea in the fall of 2013 as they made plans for Graduate School outreach in Puerto Rico.

Maness knew there were already a number of Puerto Rican students in the U’s biomedical sciences programs, and eight of them eagerly offered to give their contact information to anyone considering the academic programs here at the U. The list of ambassadors was well received at outreach events at Puerto Rican universities: “Many were excited just to know there was already a Puerto Rican community ‘waiting’ for them in Minnesota,” says Maness.

The group of students offering their experience, advice, and knowledge to prospective Puerto Rican recruits became known as “ambassadors,” and the Graduate Student Ambassador program was born.

The concept is simple, but the effects have been profound. Now including twelve regular members, these current and former U of M graduate students volunteer to serve as points of contact for potential graduate students—particularly those from populations that aren't well-represented on campus.

From strangers to family: Carving out comfortable, caring communities at the U

Maness soon found that the program took off in ways he did not expect. UMN graduate ambassadors were offering to pick up new Puerto Rican students from the airport, house them, and include them in social functions—a pattern which has continued for the past two years, and resulted in a strong and growing community of Puerto Rican students from the biomedical sciences as well as the Spanish, English, and engineering graduate programs.

“New students were quickly integrated to our Puerto Rican group of friends, and we’ll be glad to welcome any other Puerto Ricans who wish to join,” says one UMN ambassador.

Maness stresses that the goal of his work is to set the stage for a welcome, inclusive environment. While he and others involved with the program create the framework for ambassadors to reach out, share their personal experience, and make connections, the Ambassador program lets students create their own grassroots networks within the campus community.

“These students are just so supportive and they want to help each other out. Fellow graduate students are the best resource for honest information about the climate, program, and people,” says Maness.

So far, the other major universities that Maness has talked with do not yet have ambassador programs like this, but many are eager to follow suit.

Ambassador program expands to connect with first-generation graduate students

Since the Puerto Rican Ambassador program has shown such success, Maness thought there must be a way to create ambassador networks within other student populations, too.

During fall 2015, Maness expanded the ambassador outreach group to include current and former UMN McNair Scholars. The federally funded TRIO McNair Scholars program assists eligible first-generation undergraduate students from low-income families and underrepresented groups to prepare for and to enter graduate programs leading to the Ph.D.

Maness attends McNair conferences across the nation and brings with him a list of UMN McNair contacts, ready to share their knowledge of student life in Minneapolis. Dr. Evelyn Davies-Venn, a former Gopher and McNair Scholar who recently gained a faculty position in the University Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences is one of the U’s McNair ambassadors.

“I’ve been contacted by five prospective students so far,” attests Dr. Davies-Venn, “and I think it’s a great program.”

The U hopes this new network of McNair Scholars will reinforce a strong community of first generation college students, resulting in a welcoming and excellent academic and extra-curricular environment for students from diverse backgrounds.

In addition to his work with McNair Scholars, Maness recently reached out to the University's Black Graduate and Professional Students Association (BGAPSA) to coordinate ambassadors for upcoming outreach events. Maness regularly visits Historically Black Colleges and Universities as part of his recruitment work, and is eager to include the voices of BGAPSA students in these outreach efforts.

Maness stresses, “It’s important to diversify graduate programs because we need to reflect the population of tomorrow. If we don’t recruit diverse students, we aren’t representing or cultivating our nation’s future leaders.”

–Andrea Willgohs