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The MSU Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences has admitted and will fund three African American women graduate students for the 2018 academic year. This will be the first time in the history of the Department that three African American graduate students will be admitted and funded in the same year. The students admitted and funded are Cordelia Martin-Ikpe, Raven Mitchell and Kyeesha Wilcox.

Cordelia Martin-Ikpe
Cordelia Martin-Ikpe (Photo by Dee Jordan)

Cordelia will be pursuing a Ph.D. in Geography with an emphasis on public health. She is a native of Detroit and worked at the Michigan Public Health Institute after receiving her master’s degree from Michigan State University. She will take relevant courses and conduct research on comparative maternal health outcomes for American-born and foreign-born Black women.

Raven Mitchell
Raven Mitchell (Photo by Dee Jordan)

Raven will be pursuing a master’s degree with an emphasis on Physical and Environmental Geography. Raven is a native of Davison, Michigan and received her undergraduate degree from Northern Michigan University in Earth Science. She received the Outstanding Graduating Senior Award from the Department of Earth, Environmental and Geographical Sciences at Northern Michigan University. Raven was also a student in the Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP) in 2017 at Michigan State University.

Kyeesha Wilcox
Kyeesha Wilcox (Photo by Dee Jordan)

Kyeesha will be pursuing a master’s degree with an emphasis on Urban Social Geography and the relationship between the lack of equal access to healthy food for low income populations and the high obesity rates in neighborhoods with very low socioeconomic characteristics within metropolitan areas. She received her undergraduate degree from Middle Tennessee State University. Kyeesha has already demonstrated her research skills by receiving the Undergraduate Research and Creativity Award this academic year. She was also a student in the Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP) at Michigan State University in 2017.

How Did the Department Achieve this Historic Accomplishment?

The most important factors in the Department’s success in recruiting the underrepresented graduate students were progressive leadership and measurable commitment. Measurable commitment is demonstrated by actually funding the underrepresented students once a Department admits them. According to the most recent NSF Report on Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities (2016) only six African Americans received a Ph.D. in Geography in the entire United States. Among the primary reasons is the lack of funding via a graduate assistantship or fellowship support.

Already considered a progressive leader in support of diversity issues, Alan Arbogast, Chairperson of the Department, was willing to demonstrate a measurable commitment to recruit and fund the three underrepresented students mentioned above. Such willingness was communicated to the progressive Chair of the Admissions Committee and Director of the Graduate Program, Ashton Shortridge. Professor Shortridge started to engage in very active recruitment to increase the number of underrepresented graduate students. Professor Shortridge co-leads the Department’s underrepresented minority recruitment initiative with Dee Jordan, a fourth-year doctoral geography student. Dee is very experienced with diversity issues. She has served on the Diversity Panel for Graduate Student Life and Wellness, Leadership Fellows, and contributes to important conversations about navigating MSU as a student of color. Dee was selected as the 2018 recipient of the MSU Excellence in Diversity Award in the Individual Emerging Progress category.

Over the past four years, geography doctoral student Dee Jordan has been actively pursuing ways to increase underrepresented minority representation within the Department. Dee reached out to me and Professor Shortridge in 2014 and expressed concerns about the lack of African American, Hispanic, and Native American students in her cohort, among graduate students within the Department as a whole, as well as in the Department’s promotional video. Dee inquired about the Department’s recruitment strategy, which was largely passive, and she suggested more active recruitment to attract diverse student applicants. Both Professor Shortridge and I were receptive to her suggestion, and Dr. Arbogast also agreed that this approach could be beneficial for the Department.

In 2017, after researching best practices in recruiting, creating inclusive climates, cultural competency and cohort effects, the Find Your Place in the World underrepresented minority scholars in geography initiative began.

This four-pronged marketing, recruitment, retention and graduate engagement strategy is a comprehensive approach to diversifying the professoriate and increasing demographic representation for students of color in the discipline.

In addition to progressive leadership at the department level, progressive leadership at the Dean’s level was also important. Dr. Rachel Croson joined the MSU College of Social Science as Dean in August 2016. She immediately engaged in the development of a strategic plan for 2017-2022. One of the values of the plan is inclusiveness. Inclusiveness is demonstrated by a culture in which all individuals are valued, respected and engaged so that diverse voices can enrich our work (College of Social Science Strategic Plan, 2017-2022, p. 2). Among the missions of the strategic plan is diversity. The plan states, “our college is open and welcoming, deriving strength from a plurality of identities and lived experiences. We will build a more diverse and inclusive environment to fulfill our mission” (p. 5).

The Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences has taken action to assist the College in achieving this mission and insuring that the Department will continue to be a pipeline for underrepresented graduate students to not only be admitted but also funded.

— Joe T. Darden
Professor of Geography
Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences, Michigan State University, and AAG Fellow

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0035