Many fellowships and grants require you to explain your commitment to “diversity” or “outreach,” whether this is through your research or extracurricular activities. It can be difficult to think of ways to engage with the community and to do so meaningfully, but there are opportunities out there. This blog post will provide some tips on how to find these opportunities and how I went about doing this as a doctoral student in the Biomedical Engineering program at Rutgers.
I did not have what would be considered a “sustained commitment” to diversity or outreach when I started graduate school. I had volunteered in other capacities in high school and college — as a volunteer at animal rescue shelters, as a swim instructor for children with disabilities, and in some other ways too. So by the time I got to Rutgers, I was interested in trying a different type of volunteering that would more closely relate to mentoring. I was excited about graduate school and the research I was doing, and I wanted to give this experience to others.
Start small: The first outreach/mentoring activity I participated in was the Summer Science Scholars Academy (S3A) Research Day hosted by Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. It is a half-day research shadowing program within the whole S3A program, which runs for several weeks and is for rising high school seniors and college freshman. The students (between 1 and 3) shadow you for the morning, and then all of the mentors and mentees gather for lunch and an informal Q&A period. This experience showed me how much I enjoyed mentoring and sharing my enthusiasm for science. I have continued participating in this program every year I’ve been in graduate school, and it gave me a great starting point for future mentoring opportunities.
- Takeaway: When you’re just getting started, look for opportunities that don’t require a huge time commitment or advance preparation. It’s a great way to get your feet wet, see what you like or don’t like about an experience, and develop your mentoring style.
Watch your email: There are a surprising number of outreach/mentoring opportunities that float through your inbox on a monthly basis. Take advantage of the ones that you have time for and that interest you. I have learned about several opportunities through mass emails: the NJ Juniors Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS), the BIO Links program, and the HEROES Academy. Even if you don’t have time for a particular opportunity or it requires someone who is more advanced in their graduate study, bookmark it for later. It’s always great when you can talk about what you’re doing and what you plan to do. Continuity is key.
- Takeaway: Do your research and watch your email for volunteer opportunities. Keep a list of your current activities and the ones you want to participate in in the future. Before you know it, you will have an impressive list!
Go the extra mile: As I mentioned in the previous point, I learned through email about the BIO Links program, which pairs Rutgers graduate students and postdocs with science or math teachers at local schools. The purpose is for you to volunteer for 8-10 weeks in a classroom — it could be high school or middle school and could be any class in the STEM field (math, chemistry, physics, biology) depending on your interests and on teacher availability. I chose a high school physics class, and I am now in my fifth academic year volunteering at the New Brunswick High School. Since I enjoyed the experience so much the first year, in the following years I have improved my Spanish to volunteer specifically in bilingual classes, and I have worked with the teacher to bring the classes to visit Rutgers. My presence in the classroom is important, but what makes a bigger impression is bringing the students into your world (i.e. Rutgers and our laboratory).
- Takeaway: When you are first starting a commitment, do what the program requires, but then reflect on that experience to see what else you can do. How can you go beyond the program requirements to elevate the students you are mentoring? Discuss your ideas with the director of whatever program you are involved in. You never know what could happen!
Other ideas: Start a blog, tutor or teach, involve undergraduates in your research. The options are endless!
Do you have any suggestions for unique outreach ideas? We’d love to hear them in the comments below! If you’d like to discuss how your outreach efforts fit into a specific fellowship application, make an appointment with us.