Price, ACSP Workshop Aims to Improve Minority Representation in PhD Programs

By Matthew Kredell

In an effort to increase the pipeline of minority students going into Ph.D. programs in the field of planning, the USC Price School of Public Policy and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) cosponsored the first-ever Summer Pre-Doctoral Workshop for Students of Color in July.

Marlon Boarnet, director of graduate programs in Urban Planning at USC Price, came up with the idea for the four-day workshop. The ACSP, for which Boarnet is one of two west regional representatives, had tracked representation of minority faculty in planning and found there had been no increase from 1990 to 2010. In his capacity at the Price School, he had also noticed a lack of applicants to the Urban Planning and Development Ph.D. program from underrepresented minority groups.

He secured funding from the Price School and ACSP to offer a one-time pilot effort of the workshop with the hope of continuing it in future years.

California is now “majority minority,” with over half of the state’s population in minority groups. As communities across the U.S. and the world become more diverse, attracting the most talented students of color into doctoral study will be increasingly important.

“Planning is about training students who will go out and work in the community, and the kinds of questions they ask as scholars are based on their background and life experience,” Boarnet said. “We need to diversify the professoriate, so academia will ask the kind of questions that matter for these communities.”

Interest was much higher than anticipated, with the workshop drawing 99 applicants. Originally, the plan was to have 15 to 20 students attend, but the final total was increased to 26 participants. Many of the students came from long distances to take part in the workshop at USC. Attendees represented 12 different U.S. states and Puerto Rico.

“USC is a university that is committed to shaping the 21st century,” said Sally Pratt, vice provost of graduate programs, during her presentation to the students. “A university that stays complacent isn't going to play that shaping role that USC is determined to play. It's through events like this that USC will attract people who represent the wide range of thinking, experience and demographics that will make up the 21st century.”

USC Price faculty who volunteered their time for the workshop included Anthony Bertelli, Hilda Blanco, Raphael Bostic, LaVonna Lewis, Lisa Schweitzer, David Sloane and emeritus professor Ed Blakely. USC sociology professor Manuel Pastor also presented.

Lois Takahashi, who received her Ph.D. in urban and regional planning at USC Price and now teaches at UCLA, was one of many outside professors to participate.

Other presenters from outside USC included: Victoria Basolo, UC Irvine; Anna Joo Kim, Georgia Institute of Technology; Ali Modarres, CSU Los Angeles; Sylvia Nam, UC Riverside; Daniel Rodriguez, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Rigoberto Rodriguez, CSU Long Beach; Catherine Ross, Georgia Institute of Technology; Carolina S. Sarmiento, UC Irvine; Abel Valenzuela, UCLA; and Mia C. White, UC Santa Barbara.

In addition, students received advice on their Ph.D. application and personal statement from Marisol Gonzalez, director of recruitment and admission at the Price School.

The faculty provided students the nuts and bolts about what a Ph.D. career is like and how to get into a program. Most Ph.D. programs admit 10 percent or less of applicants, so the workshop also offered coaching on how to make applications stand out and set up mentors who could help students through the five-year Ph.D. process and early careers. Participating professors shared stories of how they persevered through their own Ph.D. experiences, pushing through many of the obstacles that minorities face.

“Before a couple months ago, I never really considered a Ph.D.,” said Nina Idemudia, a second-year MPL student at USC Price. “People like me, they work. Yeah, there are women of color who have a Ph.D., but growing up I just never saw any. I'm glad this program exists because it shows we can get a Ph.D., we should have more faith in ourselves and we can hang with the rest of the academics. I really appreciate all of their advice and insights on how to do it.”

Faculty members were frank in talking about the struggles they faced in their Ph.D. studies. Bostic admitted that he quit his Ph.D. program in economics at Stanford three times, in each instance having to be talked off the cliff by a faculty member. He advised students not to face these moments alone, and to realize each of their student colleagues are going through the exact same thing.

“This is hard,” Bostic said. “It's conceptually hard, intellectually challenging and in many ways non-sexy. Papers are neat and when you make a discovery that's nice, but 90 percent of this isn't that. It's cleaning data, trying to track down this paper, trying to get someone to answer an e-mail. You need to persevere and you need to be bulldogged and self-assured. For many of us, the Ph.D. experience is learning how to do that.”

Schweitzer advised students to use their time in school to acquire a set of research methods, because there won't be time to learn new methods as an assistant professor.

“Now that I have tenure, something I'm doing is giving myself time to explore some new methods,” Schweitzer said. “That's not a luxury you have when the clock is ticking. Five years is not long enough, trust me. I thought it was oceans of time, then woosh, it was gone.”

Julio Verdejo, one of three participants from Puerto Rico, noted that the workshop was “a great opportunity to see the university, the city, and what L.A. has to offer with its diversity, planning issues and challenges.”

“It was an opportunity to get that knowledge from people in academia and the field of planning to know if this is the right fit for me,” he added. “Seeing the passion with which they do their work and are taking the time to help us, and meeting other students who have a great passion for what they do, it's contagious and makes me look forward to the challenge.”

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For summary notes of the workshop and details of future workshops see Conferences/Workshops at this web site.