The Didtinguished Fellows and their mentors aroudn a table at a celebration

New State program brings Distinguished Graduate Fellows to Worcester State

September 18, 2023
By: Nancy Sheehan

Three-quarters of college and university faculty members in the United States are white, a daunting statistic for ALANA/BIPOC graduate students aiming for an academic career. This summer, Worcester State worked to address this disparity through a new Graduate Fellows Program that is part of a Massachusetts Department of Higher Education pilot.

The 10-week program, known as the Welcoming, Inclusive, and Supportive Environments (WISE) Program, encouraged applications from doctoral and MFA students nationwide.  The program’s goal was to support early career development for ALANA/BIPOC (African, Latine, Asian, Native American and/or Black, Indigenous, People of Color) graduate students on the path to professorships with hopes that they’ll consider teaching-focused institutions such as Worcester State.

Fellows at a table with a faculty member

(L to R) Mary Fowler, Tracey Wang, Saleem Shah, and Mariana Calle

The program was funded through a new $57,000 grant from the Department of Higher Education’s Higher Education Innovation Fund. Each graduate student received a $6,000 stipend, plus a housing and food allowance, and was paired with a Worcester State faculty member for research and career mentoring with a focus on diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice.

The WISE program is an important initiative for Worcester State and the Commonwealth generally as a way to help graduate students, especially ALANA/BIPOC students, overcome challenges they may face, according to Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs Henry C. Theriault. 

In addition to the Office of Academic Affairs, program stewardship was provided by the Center for Teaching and Learning, with Director Emily Soltano; Mary Fowler, faculty fellow for equity; and Julie Habjan Boisselle, faculty development specialist, serving as career mentors to complement the role of four Worcester State faculty research mentors: Abir Bukhatwa (business administration and economics), Riley McGuire (English), Hardeep Sidhu (English), and Nafisa Tanjeem (interdisciplinary studies). 

The program gave students the chance to be mentored by ALANA/BIPOC faculty or faculty from another minority community, a rare opportunity since faculty from those communities are so few.

“The faculty participating in the program as mentors have personal, situated experience of navigating an academic system that is not easy to navigate for graduate students who do not have cis-white privilege and other privileges,” Dr. Tanjeem said. “The Worcester State faculty members’ personal experiences, along with their professional expertise, made this mentoring relationship a unique one for our ALANA/BIPOC fellows.”

Participating graduate students were: 

  •       Eman Al-Drous, University of Delaware  
  •       Roshad Meeks, Tufts University
  •       Saleem Shah, Clark University   
  •       Tracey Wang, University of Virginia

Wang’s research project focused on contemporary Chinese American literature and film and looked at how the political and economic changes of the last two decades have critically reshaped racial formation in the U.S.

As an Asian American, her investigations in the fields of Asian American studies and critical race studies are deeply personal, she said.

“I grew up in a working class, immigrant neighborhood in Queens, and witnessing firsthand the displacement of poor people and the dominance of corporate interests in my neighborhood and my city over the years has compelled me to think through these questions in my research,” she said. “The precarity of life for the working poor, for undocumented immigrants, for people who do not speak English—those are the experiences I always aim to center in my writing.”

In addition to helping Wang with her research, Dr. Tanjeem also assisted her in taking the next steps toward her long-term goal of becoming a tenure-track university professor.

“Professor Tanjeem has also been incredibly helpful to me in preparing job materials,” Wang said. “She has read and given me suggestions on my CV, my cover letter, and other materials in anticipation for when I go on the job market. I am so grateful for her expertise and her careful review of my materials.”

Saleem Shah, who grew up in one of the tribal areas of Pakistan, focused his research on climate change and child marriages in his native country. “Climate change and child marriages are two interconnected challenges for the modern world, particularly for developing countries, that have adverse impacts on individuals’ and societies’ life,” he said.

Shah said he was eager to work with Dr. Bukhatwa because she is a development economist with research interests in mother and child health and issues related to the developing world at large.

“I am incredibly grateful for the enriching experience during my time at Worcester State University as a Distinguished Graduate Fellow,” Shah said. “The mentors and advisors maintain a nurturing and participatory learning environment to help me update my understanding of teaching and research and develop new skills.”

The fellows also got to know campus leaders, including President Barry M. Maloney, and reported that a roundtable with Deans Linda Larrivee and Russ Pottle and Chemistry Department Chair Meghna Dilip was a “standout” experience.

Worcester State, too, benefits from the mentor relationships, said Boisselle. “This initiative is a win-win,” she said. “Worcester State and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts can provide the fellows support in a myriad of ways while also gaining tremendously by their presence and engagement on our campus. We hope that by getting to know our learning community a bit while they are pursuing their Ph.D.s that they’ll consider returning to Worcester State as faculty, guest speakers, or pretty much in any capacity we can welcome them back.”

In the top photo, from left: Emily Soltano, Tracey Wang, Riley McGuire, Roshad Meeks, Eman Al-Drous, Hardeep Sidhu, Abir Bukhatwa, and Saleem Shah

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