Growing our own STEM faculty

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When many people in the greater United States think of California, they frequently focus on a long scenic coastline with San Francisco at the top and Los Angeles at the bottom. While this image isn’t completely wrong, it is a gross oversimplification that leaves out the Central Valley, a great expanse of land and people sometimes referred to as “the other California.”

By almost any measure, the Central Valley is very different. Approximately two-thirds of Central Valley residents demographically are from underrepresented minority groups, and 16% live beneath the poverty line. Only 18% of Central Valley residents have a bachelor’s degree, with many of the areas our colleges serve as low as 4% and even 2% baccalaureate attainment. A significant barrier to expanding the pipeline for baccalaureate attainment is the availability of faculty, particularly in disciplines like science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Furthermore, the representation of faculty from underrepresented minority groups and women in STEM is low.

To address this challenge of increasing the pipeline of faculty in STEM and ensuring diverse faculty representation, two institutions in the Central Valley — Bakersfield College (BC) and University of California (UC) Merced — in 2020 launched the Faculty Diversification Fellowship Program (FDFP) to:

  • Focus on recruiting fellows from graduate programs in STEM fields.
  • Introduce fellows to the professional, pedagogical and socio-cultural skills for community college faculty positions.
  • Increase the diversity of California’s community college faculty by preparing URM candidates to effectively navigate the faculty application and interview process.

UC Merced has become a major source for a diverse professoriate for California and the nation, attracting one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse graduate student bodies, with 22% of doctoral and masters’ students belonging to an underrepresented minority group. UC Merced has made great efforts to ensure that their graduate students successfully complete their degrees and are prepared to enter and thrive in the professoriate job market.

The Faculty Diversification Program further enhances the training of graduate alumni from UC Merced and provides focused mentorship and guidance specific to the community college faculty pathway. Through the planning, implementation and evaluation stages of the program, there are lessons learned that can serve as a launching pad for other institutions who want to embark on a similar journey.

Exposure and opportunity

The recruitment component of the program involves inviting graduate students in STEM disciplines at UC Merced to apply to be part of the FDFP program. These graduate students are then assigned a faculty mentor from their respective disciplines from BC. Both mentor and mentee commit to a yearling journey of orientation, training and other activities. 

In the second semester of the program, the mentee could be assigned a class that they will teach or co-teach with their mentor. The literature on the mentorship of faculty of color demonstrates just how strongly these practices can promote increasing the candidates for potential STEM faculty positions as well as increasing the number of candidates who are from underrepresented minority groups.

Since the start of the program, we have had two cohorts. Cohort 1 had 16 fellows, with six identifying as female and five from underrepresented minority groups. Cohort 2 comprises seven females and six are URM. One of the fellows from Cohort 2 is a doctoral student in public health at the University of California, Merced. Her research interests reflect the shifting demographics of the United States and focus on Latino health. She is particularly interested in how access to health care and health information contributes to cancer disparities among Latino populations.

Teaching is an extension of her commitment to social justice that also propels her research. The reach of this program has extended to include fellows from Fresno State University, and California State University, Bakersfield.

Broader goals

FDFP falls directly in line with broader initiatives in California and Washington. A few months ago, the U.S. Department of Education gave the University of Arizona a $5 million grant to support Hispanic and low-income students attain STEM degrees. In his 2022 budget, California Gov. Gavin Newsom set the ambitious goal of a 70% graduation rate for Californians by 2030. The rate in the Central Valley is about 18%.

Over the last five years, BC has focused on expanding the STEM programs resulting in it being the fastest-growing fields of study at the college, with almost 2,500 declared majors in those disciplines in 2020. But difficulty in recruiting STEM faculty in general and diverse STEM faculty, in particular, continues to be a problem.

FDFP gives special attention to mentorship, which drives the program in three important ways:

  • It illuminates a clear pathway to the professoriate for these individuals who would not have considered higher ed teaching in the past. 
  • It helps engage seasoned faculty in the development and training of new faculty.
  • It helps foster a sense of belonging, prevents disenfranchisement, and generates an environment of inclusion and empathy that can permeate an entire school system.

The planning, implementation and evaluation components of the program elicit lessons that can advise other institutions eager to embark on a similar journey. Since underrepresented minorities still lag in generational wealth and educational outcomes, programs that recruit, train and mentor diverse faculty professors have the potential to unleash vigorous societal improvements in a relatively short time.

Programs like FDFP are fiscally and socially responsible ways to guarantee that we grow our faculty, particularly those from underrepresented groups and women as we expand STEM programs at our colleges to preserve and improve equitable educational attainment for generations into the future.

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Sonya Christian is chancellor of the Kern Community College District (California) and former president of the district’s Bakersfield College.

Gregg Camfield is provost at the University of California Merced.