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The SERGE program reaches out to prospective students with the message, “You belong here”

The two-day program gives students from around the globe and a diversity of backgrounds a glimpse of PhD life at Stanford — and a community to welcome them.

The SERGE program reaches out to prospective students with the message, “You belong here”

November 18, 2020
Gabriela Fierro, left, and Aliyah Smith

Gabriela Fierro, left, and Aliyah Smith participated in this year’s SERGE program at Stanford School of Engineering | Courtesy

When University of Maryland, Baltimore County, senior Aliyah Smith was applying to graduate schools in 2018, she got wind of SERGE, a new program working to increase the diversity of PhD students at Stanford School of Engineering.

Taking advantage of a rare opportunity to visit the West Coast, Smith found a nascent program operating on a shoestring and run entirely by students — and the educational experience she’d been searching for.

“When I went to other schools I was visiting, I didn’t really feel much of a sense of community; I didn’t know where my support system would be,” Smith said. “But when I came here, I saw all these dedicated students who really cared about bringing new students in and making sure they stay. Because recruiting is only the first part; you have to make sure there’s an environment that’s welcoming and supportive so the students can obtain a PhD in the long run.”

Today, Smith is back at Stanford, where she’s pursuing her PhD in aeronautics and astronautics and confident in her grad school decision.

“A leap of faith”

Established in 2017, SERGE — Stanford Exposure to Research and Graduate Education — began as a result of diversity concerns within the PhD program on the part of both a group of engineering students in Professor Sheri Sheppard’s course Expanding Engineering Limits: Culture, Diversity & Gender and members of Stanford’s Black Engineering Graduate Student Association (BEGSA).

Students of color were not adequately represented, and there was no specific initiative working to boost those numbers. Improving the situation, BEGSA members believed, would require aggressively recruiting high-potential undergraduates from underrepresented communities around the country, said PhD candidate and BEGSA member Matthew Clarke, one of SERGE’s co-founders.

“People sometimes get the impression that because of the name of the school we’ll automatically attract students of color, but Stanford is on the West Coast, and historically speaking, there are more African American and Latinx communities in the southern and eastern portions of the country,” Clarke said. “To get them to take a leap of faith and come here, you have to strongly and actively recruit them. You’re also talking about students who may be first-generation or low-income, and as a result grad schools like Stanford, MIT, Yale don’t necessarily call out to them because they’ve just not had the exposure.”

Begun with a modest budget and operated by BEGSA, SERGE found immediate support from the Equity and Inclusion team in Stanford Engineering to recruit and host promising students from underrepresented communities for a fully funded two-day campus visit each fall. Attendees walk the halls, tour laboratories, meet faculty and students, attend academic workshops and panels, and learn about life as a graduate student at Stanford.

“We conduct outreach to colleges and universities across the country, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutions and Tribal colleges and universities,” said Lourdes Andrade, director of equity and inclusion at the School of Engineering. “Being one of the leading engineering schools in the world means being committed to increasing gender, ethnic and racial diversity. SERGE is critical in that messaging and effort, because it’s proactively reaching out to students and showing them they belong here, and that Stanford Engineering would be lucky to have them.”

SERGE 2020 was held virtually Oct. 8-10 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Andrade said. Nevertheless, the program was able to host a full range of virtual tours, workshops and meetings with faculty. Attendance, normally capped at about 20 students, rose to 65 this year due to decreased housing and transportation costs, and included international students along with those from throughout the U.S.

Connecting with experience

Unique to SERGE is an opportunity for participants to engage with a panel of current students on the topic of graduate life at Stanford, Clarke said.

“We give them realistic expectations on things like ‘How do you deal with Imposter Syndrome?’ ‘How do you deal with very difficult exams?’ ‘How do you form groups and teams?’ ‘How is it living in the Bay Area as a minority?’ All these things are important to surviving and having good mental health and well-being at Stanford,” he said.

Gabriela Fierro, a senior McNair Scholar at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who studies environmental science, entrepreneurship and policy, attended October’s virtual SERGE session and will apply to the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) PhD program. The opportunity to meet PhD students and faculty during SERGE assured her that Stanford encourages the collaborative research she’s interested in, within the supportive and inclusive community that’s important to her.

“SERGE really connected us with people from diverse backgrounds who shared some of our experiences as students of color,” she said. “It was incredible to hear professors relate to those of us who are applying and navigating research as first-generation college students. I met women leading STEM research and driving innovation in the energy industry.”

“This type of representation is crucial; if you don’t see a future version of yourself doing these things, you don’t know it’s possible,” Fierro added. “Many of us come from communities that have had to find creative solutions to the issues that research hopes to solve. Our seat at the table is immensely important.”

SERGE’s goal of actively recruiting potential PhD students from around the country is a vital component to strengthening the diversity pipeline into engineering, Smith said.

“I’m in aerospace, and it’s a field that desperately needs diversity,” she said. “A lot of times, I think, people might believe a certain demographic doesn’t want to be part of this field. But once you bring students on campus, and you see all these students interested in becoming an aerospace engineer with a PhD, then you realize that maybe it’s time to make more effort to bring them in. Once they have their PhD, they can go on and be great contributors to the field.”