Karina Herrera Gonzalez and Flavian Brown share a laugh on the grounds of the Medical School

Every student who comes to Harvard to do a PhD faces the pressure that goes along with high standards, high expectations, and high stakes. For minority students, that pressure can be intensified. If you’re the only minority face in a classroom or lab, or the only one here who went to your undergraduate school; if your whole neighborhood back home knows you’re at Harvard; or if you don’t see faculty role models who look like you or share your background, the typical risks of a PhD program — isolation, a lack of confidence, anxiety — can become more acute.

That’s why GSAS student leaders are bringing new energy this year to community-building groups on the Cambridge and Longwood campuses that are working to create spaces where minority students can come together for friendship, intellectual exchange, mentoring, networking, and professional development opportunities.

Mateo Munoz

“We all come here primarily to join a community of scholars,” says Mateo Munoz, a fifth-year student in history of science and one of the leaders of the W.E.B. Du Bois Graduate Society, an organization that formed in 1983 to serve the needs of underrepresented minorities at GSAS. “Your primary focus is your discipline and your department, and rightly so. You’re developing yourself as a scholar. But community goes beyond the obvious link that you have to a particular institution or discipline. It’s also something that you choose — a group of people with shared values and interests and life experiences. If you are the only minority student in your department, that presents an immediate challenge around building community.”

The Du Bois Society, active primarily on the Cambridge campus, and the Minority Biomedical Scientists of Harvard (MBSH), at Longwood, are seeking to create a forum to resolve those challenges. The Du Bois group, responding to the needs articulated by its broad-based membership, is focusing this year on social support and networking, hosting a yearlong series of gatherings — called Third Thursdays — at the Queen’s Head Pub in Memorial Hall. The group is also developing plans to revive an old tradition of faculty-student dinners, to institute a peer-to-peer mentoring program, and to develop collaborative programs with other student groups working across the University.

MBSH has focused on building strong relationships with first-year students, creating a successful mentoring program that matches advanced and new students for friendship and guidance. The group also hosts a series of practical professional-development events for scientists — this year, on fellowship proposals, grant writing, presentation skills, choosing a lab, and finding your post-PhD path.

Flavian Brown 500.jpg

Flavian D. Brown, the current president of MBSH and a second-year PhD candidate in immunology, says he’s motivated by an abiding interest in educational equality, a commitment that grew as he worked his way beyond the confines of a south-side Chicago public education to Carleton College and ultimately to Harvard.

“I’ve been able to see and really feel what it’s like to be economically disadvantaged and underserved,” Brown says. Along the way, he gained a first-hand understanding of “the systems at work in our society that maintain the dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots.” Brown says it took “absolute will — determination and hard work” for him to get to where he is. “What is critical,” he says, “is having role models and mentors as you go. It’s absolutely necessary. But once you begin to move up the ranks, you don’t see very many people who look like you.”

Brown ultimately hopes that MBSH will expand its reach by digging deeper into issues around access and community building in education. The group has plans for public service and mentoring projects with local organizations, showing at-risk Boston teens “that there’s a different way in life,” or encouraging students in urban elementary and middle schools to plan for college or to get excited about science.

“That type of work is where we have a lot of room to expand,” Brown says. “I see MBSH as having the potential to build up not only our own community, but those around us.”

The new energy emanating from these student groups comes a year after GSAS appointed Sheila Thomas, a cancer biologist and Harvard Medical School faculty member, to the newly created position of assistant dean for diversity and minority affairs. Thomas helped to revamp GSAS’s recruitment and admissions processes last year, part of a multifaceted, ongoing effort to build a more diverse PhD program across the disciplines. The new strategies had a positive impact on last year’s admissions season. The first-year PhD class includes 48 members of underrepresented minority groups, up from 29 in last year’s incoming class. And Harvard’s yield of admitted underrepresented minority students — that is, the percentage of students who accepted Harvard’s offer of admission — rose to nearly 70 percent, from less than 50 percent the year before.

Improving the numbers is only one piece of the larger goal of creating and sustaining a culture of inclusion at Harvard, Thomas says. Building community here on campus is also central to that larger goal, and students play a vital role in this. They welcome and support admitted and first-year students through a variety of social gatherings, starting at an orientation for admitted minority students held each spring. Funlayo Wood, another Du Bois Society leader and a second-year PhD student in African and African American Studies, recalls the orientation weekend as being a key influencer in her own decision to come to Harvard, as well as the source of friendships that continue today.

“For many people of color, being away from friends and family is a big deal,” she says, especially if you’ve gone to college near home. “It’s extremely important for people to be able to recreate that space for friends and family, to be able to share concerns, and to share or bond over the common triumphs and trials of graduate school.”

Karina Herrera Gonzalez

Karina Gonzalez Herrera, the MBSH treasurer and a second-year PhD candidate in biological and biomedical sciences, realized how critical that support can be as she struggled to transition — culturally and geographically — from a close-knit undergraduate experience at California State University San Marcos to the cooler environs of Harvard. “There were a lot of minority students [at Cal State], so there wasn’t much of a need for me to reach out. It felt a lot like being at home. Coming to Harvard — it was completely different. I felt like it was more difficult for me to adjust because I didn’t have that network of support. I just had a feeling of alienation.”

When Gonzalez started her program, MBSH — founded in 1999 — was still reorganizing after a period of dormancy. The group had always maintained a vibrant newsletter, but as generations of students came and went, emphasis on programming declined. Knatokie Ford, PhD ’11, now a postdoctoral fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, revitalized the group last year and won it recognition and funding as an official GSAS student group.  As the group began coming together more regularly, “I met Flavian and a couple of other MBSH members, and we all talked frequently and convinced each other that we’d be OK. It really made a difference,” Gonzalez says. She also began meeting with Thomas, who helped her find her place academically and became an important mentor in the process.

Funlayo Wood

Connections and shared experiences, are key, the students agree. “Academia can be isolating,” says Wood, of the Du Bois Society. “You come into a program, and usually you’re with that same group of people the whole time. Unless you make a real effort to branch out, which some people don’t, you wouldn’t have any idea of what was going on in other departments or other areas. You have to carve out time for social activity — to remember that you’re a person. You’re a student, but that’s not the whole of your being. That’s the idea behind the Third Thursdays.”

Although the gatherings are billed as social events, “there is an agenda, and it’s about community,” says Munoz. “This is very much compatible with the development of the graduate student as a scholar, as someone who is part of an intellectual community. That’s what we’re trying to do. I don’t want us to be thought of as a place where people are just ‘hanging out.’ Even if it may look like we’re hanging out, what we’re actually doing is building networks, building connections, and literally becoming a part of this University.”

The question most Harvard students grapple with, Munoz continues, is an age-old one: Where do I fit in? “Hopefully, the answer to that question isn’t just one place. That’s when you run into trouble. If you have only one connection to something, you’re more vulnerable, and it’s harder for you to deal with the demands of graduate student life. It’s better to have multiple connections and a diverse set of resources. That’s part of what the Du Bois Society is trying to accomplish, is being another one of those links. And for me, it really has been.”

Building an Inclusive Community