Fostering diversity through culture, inclusion initiative enters new phase

The success of the Knight Campus Graduate Internship Program’s Inclusion and Diversity Initiative is easy to recognize.

Since the initiative’s launch in 2017, representation of women and underrepresented groups in KCGIP’s chemistry and physics tracks has increased by 2 1/2 times. Over 59% of students in the most recent cohort identified as female or from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields, surpassing national averages.

However, the initiative’s success goes well beyond numbers. Through a multi-tiered approach that includes strategic recruiting, scholarships, trainings, voluntary workshops and an annual symposium, the initiative has established a culture that prioritizes inclusion, respect and a greater understanding of crucial issues around diversity, equity and inclusion.

“The success was possible because of commitment from leadership, staff, faculty, alumni and students,” said Stacey York, Director of Materials Science Tracks. “The brightest spot for me has been how students and alumni have consistently demonstrated leadership through empathy, courage and openness to new ideas. They built a cohort that really values inclusion, equity and diversity as much as technical prowess. Now they’re taking those values into their careers.”

KCGIP prepares scientists and engineers for successful careers through an accelerated master’s program with five academic tracks that span physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science, data science and biology. Each program track provides hands-on experience, industry relevant training and soft skills development that lead directly into competitive paid 9-month internships.

The program boasts a 98% graduation rate and has launched over 900 careers. Over 90% of students are fully employed within three months of graduation.

“It’s inspiring to see our students internalizing these critical values and incorporating them into their careers,” said Bob Guldberg, vice president and Robert and Leona DeArmond Executive Director of the Knight Campus. “Having a highly talented pool of early career scientists who are inclusive and from diverse backgrounds furthers the Knight Campus mission by adding to the richness and depth of scientific discovery and innovation.”

Over the years, the applied master’s program has garnered a strong reputation for developing early career scientists, uniquely prepared for work in industry and national labs. However, like many STEM programs, it struggled with a lack of diversity.

Previous efforts to address low diversity included the formation of a women’s network, in which female students met and discussed common obstacles. Although well meaning, the network was seen as an echo chamber by many. It was viewed as non-intersectional and as failing to address the program’s overall culture – issues critical to the building of an inclusive environment for women and minorities.

“In my year, it was the Women's Internship Network but I was very pleased to hear shortly afterward that it grew into the Inclusion & Diversity group.” commented Jade Aiona, a 2017 graduate of the Optics track.  “We had a lot of chats in the women's program that it's one thing to make a group and gripe about our problems and it's another to engage in discussion with other minorities and allies on how we can all (not just those minorities) work to make STEM fields a more inclusive environment.”

Established in 2017 with a 5-year/$200,000 overall commitment, including a $100,000 gift from Thermo Fisher Scientific and $100,000 in program matching funds, the KCGIP Inclusion and Diversity Initiative strives to create a more inclusive and diverse environment for students by fostering new perspectives across the entire program while also increasing representation through strategic recruitment.

Students are encouraged to apply for inclusion scholarships, which are awarded to students impacted by or displaying a strong commitment to inclusion and diversity issues. At the beginning of the program, students are trained on active listening, core DEI issues and implicit bias. These trainings are then bolstered with a full calendar of voluntary workshops that explore identity, anti-racist leadership, micro-aggressions, braving difficult conversations, and other current issues.

“[The inclusion programming] was my first experience going through diversity, inclusion and belonging topics in an academic setting,” said Sam Roland, a 2020 graduate of KCGIP’s polymers track. “It really gave our cohort a chance to connect in a way other than our STEM backgrounds. By learning through shared and unshared experiences, it built on how we see diversity and inclusion within our personal and professional communities.”

Now, the initiative is ready to enter a new phase. With a total of $250,000 in recent commitments from MKS Instruments, Thermo Fisher Scientific and the program, a new scholarship fund will allow continued strategic recruitment for the next 5 years as well as expanded access to workshop facilitators.  Targeted recruiting strategies will extend to schools and professional conferences with strong representation.

Over the next several years, the KCGIP will look to build on the continued support of corporate partners, university leadership, faculty, staff, alumni and students and further expand the impact of its DEI efforts. The KCGIP Inclusion and Diversity initiative will not only work to attract more students from underrepresented backgrounds to STEM fields but to also deepen the program’s inclusive culture, fostering an environment that will support their growth and equip students with a greater appreciation for the importance of diverse perspectives in science.

As one KCGIP alum said, “you can’t fake culture.”

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