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The National Science Foundation has announced that the University of Missouri Graduate School is the first-place winner of its Taking Action: COVID-19 Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Challenge in the STEM Graduate Student and Postdoctoral Researchers category.

MU was recognized May 16 for the graduate school’s proposal to expand opportunities to support underrepresented minority STEM graduate students’ mental health and well-being.

“Inclusive excellence is a core value of the graduate school, and this challenge provided an opportunity to demonstrate this value in a meaningful way,” said Jeni Hart, dean of the MU Graduate School and vice provost for graduate studies. “We understand that the long-term impact of COVID-19 is unclear, but to date, it has resulted in magnifying challenges to students’ mental health and well-being, exacerbated by isolation and lack of belongingness. We cannot be complacent about these issues.”

As a first-place winner, the MU Graduate School will receive a $25,000 cash prize, which will be used to continue DEI efforts within the school.

“This prize will allow us to build upon existing programs focused on supporting graduate student mental health, particularly those who are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines,” Hart said.

The award also will be used by the graduate school to continue addressing ongoing impacts of COVID through programs such as the Grad Huddle — designed to offer a space for graduate students to build community and cultivate a sense of belonging, an essential part of their well-being.

“The Grad Huddle is the central program that we will be able to administer because of the prize,” said Hart. “Further supporting this effort is an ongoing project in conjunction with the Office of the Provost to improve mentor training for research on campus by using an evidence-based, nationally recognized curriculum that also embeds culturally aware principles.”

The DEI challenge was established to identify and share actions institutes of higher education can take to ensure and improve diversity, inclusion and equity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“The Grad Huddle and programs like it provide better access and opportunities for underrepresented minority students in STEM fields,” said Maurice Gipson, vice chancellor of inclusion, diversity and equity. “By increasing diversity in STEM we include the perspectives and lived experiences of these students who play an important part in finding innovative solutions.”

Currently, approximately 42% of graduate students are majoring in STEM fields and 11% of these students are underrepresented minorities. But the statistics of diversity are only a part of the challenge.

“IDE is important in every field, and many STEM disciplines are the least diverse in the academy,” Hart said. “Although increasing diversity is necessary, it is not sufficient. We need to create environments — labs, departments, the university — where everyone is included and welcomed. Further, the future of discovery is improved by more diverse perspectives.”

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