Coverage of protests over racism at colleges and universities across the country seem to have recently taken the news by storm, but the issues inciting these protests are hardly new. Last week, two Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences students, Stephanie Bora and Jamaal James, organized a Forum on Diversity in Graduate Education to give students, faculty, staff, and post docs a place to address and discuss these ongoing issues of diversity in the context of graduate school and academia.

Jamaal James (left) and Stephanie Bora (right), organized the Forum on Diversity in Graduate Education

Jamaal James (left) and Stephanie Bora (right), organized the Forum on Diversity in Graduate Education

According to Bora and James, the focus was on underrepresented minorities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) as well as issues affecting women and international students.

“Jamaal and I got the idea to do this the way many cool ideas form: over drinks at a conference!” said Bora. “We were out in New Orleans and started talking about race relations in general and our different experiences in grad school. We thought that continuing that conversation in a broader sense and raising awareness about subtle biases underrepresented minorities, women, and international students face might be a useful conversation.”

“We hoped to have an open and honest conversation about common obstacles that women, minorities, and international students face while in graduate school,” added James.

Dr. Avery August, guest speaker at the Forum on Diversity in Graduate Education

The two hour forum started with a seminar and Q&A session with Dr. Avery August, Professor of Immunology and Chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Cornell University. Dr. August was a Distinguished Professor of Immunology in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at Penn State before moving to Cornell in 2010. As part of his seminar, Dr. August presented the demographics of underrepresented minorities and women in STEM fields from education through employment as well as future projections.

“We chose Dr. August because of his close ties with Penn State. We were also aware of Dr. August’s vast knowledge of diversity challenges within the STEM fields and his continuous efforts to diversify academia,” said James.


“The data presented by Dr. August was eye opening, particularly the fact that inequalities exist in the processes beyond graduate school,” said Adwitia Dey, a physiology student who attended the forum. “It is important that we, as members of the Penn State community, continue to educate ourselves through such forums and encourage dialogue amongst our peers in order to shape and foster a more positive work environment.”

Dr. August’s talk was followed by  a student-led panel discussion with Josephine Garban, Yurika Matsui, and Sandeep Regmi on privilege, microaggressions that occur in the work environment of the lab/graduate school, and potential solutions to these problems. The biggest issues discussed were the lack of underrepresented minorities in the life sciences and the subconscious nature of privilege and microaggressions.

From L to R: Josephine Garban, Yurika Matsui, Sandeep Regmi, and Stephanie Bora

The main role of the panelists was to help start conversations about different issues and offer a student perspective on these issues.

“We hope that understanding these things [privilege, microaggressions, and empathies] will help us overcome some of the negative consequences that can arise from social privilege, especially with everyone already having to deal with pressures that come with graduate school and academia,” said James.

Bora and James had organized this event with graduate students in mind and addressing day-to-day issues, but were happy to find that many faculty, staff, and administrators came to better learn how to address systematic problems and better mentor their students. These conversations were great to have Dr. August around for and also gave students and faculty a place to have a discussion about what students would like to see from their advisers.

“This was a great opportunity to learn about the state of minority faculty in the U.S. and an opportunity to discuss experiences of underrepresented and female students in our labs and classrooms,” said Dr. Patreese Ingram, Assistant Dean for Multicultural Affairs in the College of Agricultural Sciences, who also attended the forum. “I think it opened up eyes and hopefully hearts. It was great to see so much support for a welcoming climate from those who attended this session.”

A packed room listening to Dr. Avery August

Most people who attended this forum agreed that this sort of event shouldn’t be just a one time thing but rather should be something that occurs on a regular basis to keep up the discussion of issues of diversity in graduate education. Bora and James, both nearing the end of their Ph.D. programs, highly encourage younger students to make sure these events continue.

According to Matsui, other “next steps” discussed at the forum included: organizing a course on issues related to diversity that graduate students and faculty members are required to take, having a set place/person that students can talk to about issues specifically related to diversity, and encouraging graduate students to serve as mentors for high school/college students who are underrepresented minorities to encourage them to pursue college and advanced degrees.


If you weren’t able to attend the Forum on Diversity in Graduate Education, Stephanie Bora had these words of advice to give after attending the forum: “try to be aware of your privilege, of other people’s lack thereof, learn and talk about racism and sexism, and be empathetic to the experiences of others.”

The Forum on Diversity in Graduate Education was hosted by CMIID and the CSA.

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