Feature

Ten years ago when APA looked at the diversity of psychology students from high school to the doctoral level, the association found that the higher you went, the fewer the number of ethnic-minority students. Today, that pipeline isn't nearly as leaky, thanks to a joint project by APA and the National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIGMS).

With $4 million in funding from NIGMS, APA organized a major initiative called "Developing Minority Biomedical Research Talent in Psychology: A Collaborative and Systemic Approach for Strengthening Institutional Capacity for Recruitment, Retention, Training and Research."

The goal was to increase the number of ethnic-minority students ready for research careers. Now the initiative is coming to an end, due to changes in eligibility for NIGMS funding. And after 13 years of funding, the 14 institutions partnering with APA have demonstrated that addressing psychological barriers, providing intensive mentoring and making entire universities more welcoming to minority students can create what APA's Bertha Holliday, PhD, calls "a culture of diversity" that helps ensure that no research talent is wasted.

"One lesson we learned is the importance of really changing institutional culture," says Holliday, senior director for ethnic-minority affairs. "It's not just about changing students, 'fixing' minority students up. It's about fixing the departments themselves."

Confidence-boosting efforts

Each of the project's five regional centers of excellence links a predominantly minority-serving community college, minority-serving four-year institution and major research university. Together they worked on conferences, research projects and other initiatives tailored to the specific needs of ethnic-minority students in their areas. Although each institution approached the project a little differently, says Holliday, what they have in common are results.

Since 1997, the project's 667 participating students have made 440 research presentations and published more than 80 scholarly articles. Eighty participants, or 60 percent of all two-year college participants, transferred from two-year institutions to four-year schools. And at least 268 students have received BA or BS degrees, at least 72 have pursued master's degrees, and 83 have entered PhD or PsyD programs, while another 39 have entered graduate professional programs, including medicine, law and social work. Several now hold tenure-track positions in psychology departments. Addressing both psychological and academic issues has helped make the project a success at Chicago State University, says psychology department chair Ivy M. Dunn, PhD.

A lack of confidence can keep African-American students from pursuing research careers, says Dunn. "To a student who secretly feels like, 'I can't do this,' even the best classes and best teachers aren't going to help," she says.

To boost students' confidence, the Chicago State University APA/NIGMS project brought in a counselor to help students assess and improve their belief in their own academic and intellectual powers and initiated a peer mentoring program, and thereby significantly increased retention rates.

Project leaders also linked budding researchers with role models by taking them to psychology conferences. "Some of our students don't know about research careers and have never met a person of color who does research," Dunn explains. A summer research program gave students the chance to help faculty members with research or tackle projects of their own.

That close contact with faculty members is in itself a way to increase students' confidence, says Dunn. "That makes them feel important."

Intensive mentoring

At the University of Miami, the student/faculty bond is even more intense.

The centerpiece of the university's APA/NIGMS project was a 10-week summer research program called the Psychology Research Initiative Mentorship Experience (PRIME). Participating students work in psychology labs, where they learn firsthand about research careers, says psychology department chair Rod Wellens, PhD. This lab experience also serves as a resume-booster for grad school applications.

At summer's end, students present their research in poster sessions. "It gives students a preview of what it would be like to participate in a professional conference or to go on a job interview," says Wellens. "We also publish a book of abstracts they can point to when they are putting together their applications or CVs."

The program has been so successful that the department has found additional funding and opened it to non-minority students.

"The project has done much more than we ever anticipated in terms of how we train students in general, not just minority students," says Victoria Noriega, PhD, director of undergraduate studies in psychology at UM and coordinator of the summer program. "It forced us to think about the importance of early research mentoring."

Noriega has completely overhauled the department's relationship with undergraduate students with a unique orientation, advising and mentoring program called FACT FORUM (Freshman Advising Contact Term and Faculty Overview of Research and Undergraduate Mentoring). She assigns incoming freshmen to groups of 10 to 15 students who meet with her and a peer adviser weekly to discuss the nature of scientific psychology, explore possible double majors and minors, find out about the importance of and how to get involved in research, and develop graduation plans to make the most of their undergraduate educational experience. During the second semester students meet in small groups with a faculty member whose research interests them to discuss research in general, in the department, and in the faculty member's own lab. Exposure to research topics in the news and to primary source journal articles is an important part of the program. Many undergraduates go on to work in their mentor's lab. The combined result of the PRIME and FACT FORUM programs has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of students pursuing a more in-depth experience in psychology—41 percent of students funded by the project went on to complete a senior honors thesis.

A welcoming environment

At the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, the APA/NIGMS initiative has sparked changes that go beyond the psychology department to affect the entire university.

Native Americans represent almost 10 percent of the state's population but just 2 percent of the university's student body, says psychology professor Beth Boyd, PhD. It can be hard to get Native American students to enroll and even harder to keep them in school, she says. In the 2004–05 school year, the retention rate for full-time Native American freshmen was just 23 percent.

"It's really tough for them to stay here, especially when there's something going on back home," says Boyd. "They feel so disconnected from their families."

The solution? To create a more family-like environment at the university. The initiative focuses on students in their first and second years, which Boyd says is when students are most likely to drop out. "We just make sure they get connected to somebody and stay connected," she says.

With support from the APA/NIGMS project, Boyd and her colleagues established a Native student services program. Housed in the campus's Native American cultural center, the program offers mentoring, tutoring and cultural activities that help students feel supported.

The department also created a Council of Indigenous Advisors—a group of elders drawn from the university and local community who maintain close ties to their traditional cultural and spiritual practices while flourishing in mainstream society.

In addition to serving as mentors for the students, the elders help university psychologists develop culturally appropriate courses and practica. "They also spend a lot of time with students who are having a difficult time or just want to talk to an elder," says Boyd. The entire university now draws upon this resource, says Boyd.

These and other efforts have improved retention rates for Native American students. By the 2007–08 school year, the retention rate for Native American freshmen had jumped to 84 percent.

"Unless students feel connected here in terms of their culture, they're not going to stay," says Boyd. "Just like any student, they really need a lot of support besides the academic kind."

More information on the APA/NIGMS Project is available online.


Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.