April 2001

Summer Program Gives Mathematics Grad Students and EDGE

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Summer Program Gives Mathematics Grad Students an EDGE
By Barbara Spector

When Susan D’Agostino arrived as a mathematics grad student at Dartmouth College, she was stunned by the difficulty of the material. But she wasn’t stymied by the terminology used in several courses. She had heard those words before.

And mathematics graduate student Farrah Jackson didn’t have to face her first daunting weeks at North Carolina State University alone. A faculty member checked in to see how she was adjusting.

These women had extra help navigating the rocky transition from undergraduate to graduate mathematical studies thanks to a summer program called EDGE (Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education). The program, the brainchild of two caring mathematics professors, Rhonda J. Hughes of Bryn Mawr College and Sylvia T. Bozeman of Spelman College, prepares female students, academically and psychologically, for the challenges of grad school.

EDGE is funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Security Agency (a major employer of U.S. mathematicians) and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Hughes and Bozeman, its co-directors, hope to counter the disproportionately high attrition rate of women and minority graduate students in the field.

Coping Strategies

Rhonda J. Hughes

"We were frustrated by the small things that led to students leaving grad school," says Hughes, the Helen Herrmann Professor of Mathematics at Bryn Mawr. A student accustomed to being at the top of her college class, for example, may not be able to handle negative feedback from an adviser or poor performance on an early exam. If the student is shy about reaching out to classmates, she may get the wrong impression that she’s the only one coping with such pressures, or that the problem lies with her inadequacy rather than the inherent difficulty of the material.

Sylvia T. Bozeman

"Grad students — especially minority and women students — internalize it, and when they can’t take it anymore, they leave," says Bozeman, associate provost for science and mathematics at Spelman. These students, the professors realized, could benefit from a program that combines academic preparation with coping strategies, presented by women who have been through the experience.

"Mathematics is a white male field," says Danielle Carr, program officer for higher education at the Mellon Foundation and a former faculty member at Bryn Mawr, who has taught in the EDGE program. "If you put females into the mix, they often feel as if they’re walking into a male locker room. It’s just awkward."

Support Network

Hughes and Bozeman were introduced at a professional meeting by a colleague who knew they shared an interest in encouraging women to pursue mathematical careers. Their first collaborative effort, the Spelman-Bryn Mawr Summer Mathematics Program, focused on encouraging talented undergraduate women to continue their mathematical studies. The NSF-funded program lasted from 1992 to 1995 and helped increase the ranks of female mathematics grad students. Yet when they assessed participants’ success, Hughes and Bozeman realized the women wouldn’t receive much help in acclimating to grad school culture. They decided to turn their attention to students entering that new environment.

Fern Y. Hunt ’69

"A lot of graduate programs literally leave you alone for two years, and then you have to pass a qualifying exam," says Fern Y. Hunt AB ‘69, a Bryn Mawr College trustee and a mathematician at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Students accustomed to the feedback continually offered in undergraduate courses may have trouble adjusting, says Hunt, who has taught in the EDGE program.

Because grad students rely on each other for academic support, Hughes and Bozeman realized the program had to help women from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds work together. And because grad students can languish alone, they knew they had to support participants after they left the program.

Grad School Mentors

Begun in 1998, the EDGE program has nurtured 27 students in its first three years and will have up to 10 participants in this summer’s session, taking place June 4-29 at Spelman College. The four-week program, held in alternate years at Bryn Mawr and Spelman, consists of core courses in analysis and algebra, minicourses in key areas of mathematics and guest lectures. Women mathematicians from academia and industry visit the program and speak candidly about their careers, their grad school memories and balancing work and personal lives. Graduate student mentors live with participants in dormitories and are on hand to address their mathematical and personal concerns.

"Because the mentors are graduate students themselves, we are a direct link for the participants to the world they are about to enter," says mentor Cathleen Battiste, a Bryn Mawr grad student.

EDGE participants receive an $1,800 stipend plus room and board for the summer. Social activities include a weekly communal dinner out courtesy of the program. Mentors receive the same benefits as the participants.

With the participants’ permission, Hughes and Bozeman will contact their grad school departments to ensure a built-in support network. "It’s a comfort to know that if I get in a jam, I can call on someone," says NCSU student Farrah Jackson.

Learning the Ropes

Program participants say EDGE helped them academically. "After seeing the material again, I understand it a little more than I did the first time around, which puts me at an advantage over students who are being overwhelmed by the new subjects," says Rice University grad student Ebonii Anderson.

EDGE mentor Ulrica Wilson Parker, a grad student at Emory University, says the program’s coursework helps identify trouble spots. "They have a lot of work thrown at them," Parker says. "You can see how they stress out over that — or they don’t take it seriously enough. As these flags get raised, we try to deal with them."

Diversity among the EDGE participants prepared her to meet her grad school classmates, says Anderson. At Spelman, her undergraduate institution, her classmates were all minorities. Rice, by contrast, has a very small minority population. "It helped me to get out of my comfort zone," she says.

When Dartmouth student Susan D’Agostino first got to grad school, "I couldn’t even understand what my homework questions were, let alone answer them," she recalls.

It would have been easy for her to believe she was the only one experiencing difficulties, D’Agostino says. But she remembered the warnings of her EDGE instructors. "They brought in so many women at all possible levels — current female grad students, tenured faculty, women who had earned their Ph.D.’s and gone into industry. If there was one consistent message, they were all saying, ‘Grad school is so hard.’"

Parker says the program’s social component helps stress the importance of outside interests. "We want them to see how to balance their work and social life," she says.

A Committed Community

The connections formed during the summer are maintained year-round via a password-protected Internet message board, facilitating confidential communication. Postings include expressions of moral support as well as academic advice. "It shows that they trust each other," says Columbia University grad student Tara Brendle, an EDGE mentor and one of the first participants in the original Spelman-Bryn Mawr Summer Mathematics Program as a Haverford College undergraduate. An annual reunion enables current participants to network with EDGE alumnae.

Brendle cites continuity of personnel as a strong point of the program. "There’s a core group of people who are committed to the goals of the program," she says. "Students see that, and it gives them a role model of how mathematicians can work professionally through networks." Mentors benefit, as well, she says. "I meet so many other mathematicians and make so many connections. The net gain is incredibly large."

The program’s NSF grant ends after this summer. Bozeman and Hughes say they will huddle with advisers to assess what form the next phase should take. They agree, however, that it’s important to continue supporting mathematics grad students.

Mentors, instructors and participants feel committed to Hughes and Bozeman because they see the professors’ commitment to others, Brendle says. "The big joke about Rhonda and Sylvia is that once you get into their programs, they never let you go." If they haven’t heard from a student, they will contact her to ask how she’s doing and what they can do to help. "They involve themselves to a degree that other professors don’t," Brendle says.

"We’d do anything for them. They’ve earned our very loyal support.

About the Author

Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the executive editor of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.

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