The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Office of Diversity and Minority Affairs hired its first pair of diversity fellows at the beginning of this semester.
The 2018 fellows, Ph.D. students Alyssa M. Hernandez and Alfredo M. Valencia, both said they applied for the position as a way to make underrepresented minorities feel more welcome on Harvard’s campus.
Sheila Thomas, the GSAS dean for academic programs and diversity, wrote in an email that the fellows are a valuable addition because they can ask questions of their peers in a way that administrators cannot.
“While we have gathered student feedback from regular meetings with student groups and town halls, one of the most important things the Fellows will do is go out into the community and have honest conversations with underrepresented students,” Thomas wrote.
On April 15, admitted students will decide whether to accept an offer from one of Harvard’s Ph.D. programs at GSAS. Hernandez and Valencia, both of whom spoke to prospective students at visiting events last month, said many of their discussions centered on the sense of “impostor syndrome” that admits feel when coming to Harvard.
“There’s such a reputation, and it’s intimidating. I felt intimidated and I still feel intimidated,” Hernandez said. “Graduate students talk a lot about impostor syndrome and feeling like they didn’t deserve to get in. We want to make Harvard more welcoming to students of color.”
Both fellows are members of affinity groups within GSAS, including the W.E.B. DuBois Graduate Society, Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering, and the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. Valencia said these groups “help students feel safe in a new environment.”
“When I first moved across the country from Southern California to the northeast, I felt like it was a very different culture,” Valencia said. “In student groups I found a really close-knit community.”
Hernandez added that one of the fellows’ major priorities for the coming year is making both admitted and current students more aware of diversity efforts at the departmental level.
“When I was applying to schools, I went directly to the program websites,” she said. “Freddy and I talked about what we saw when we applied, and whether they advertised diversity. It is something I noticed and something I took into consideration, so I thought a lot about how it might affect other students.”
Valencia estimated that about one in four program websites currently include information on departmental diversity efforts. He also noted that some other departments link to information on diversity at GSAS more broadly. Moving forward, he said he and Hernandez hope to work with administrators to increase the visibility of diversity efforts on these websites.—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah