Welcoming the World to Amherst

Welcoming the World to Amherst

In participation with Graduate Women in STEM (GWiS) and the Indian Students Association (ISA), CSWomen has been awarded a Welcoming the World to Amherst grant by the Student Engagement and International Programs Office.

Our proposal “ZeppelinBend: A Peer Mentoring Program for Fostering Intellectual Ties and Academic Success in Graduate Computer Science” was a group effort led by CSWomen members Shamya Karumbaiah and Amee Trivedi, and supported by co-chairs Emma Tosch and Emma Strubell.

A general planning meeting for this grant will be held on Tuesday, February 2nd at 4PM, open to all CSWomen members.

The text of that proposal is presented below:

Birds of a feather flock together. This concept is known as homophily and is true even with the students who have left their home country to pursue their dreams in a foreign land. Homophily can be comforting, especially in the beginning when everything is new. But as all students progress in their academic program, it becomes essential for students to break free of this safety net and collaborate with people outside their culture; this is all the more true when it comes to a demanding graduate program in a competitive field of study like computer science. Trying to build new relationships becomes increasingly difficult as students progress in their program. Consequently, embracing cultural diversity from the start will not only aid students’ success in the program but also enhance their overall experience and morale during their years in graduate school. We propose kickstarting a new peer mentoring program designed to match pairs of incoming graduate students with a current graduate student in STEM at Umass. Named after the knot that combines two distinct pieces of rope, traditionally used for mooring airships, it encapsulates the program we are proposing.

The project will be launched in three phases:

  1. Mentor training for current graduate students, recruiter from the participating GSOs.
  2. Initial pilot of the proposed “buddy triangles” with incoming graduate students in the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS).
  3. Compilation and dissemination of our preliminary results to other STEM departments.

We propose to use this grant in the spring semester to train our mentors for this project, and to send them to social cultural events. To facilitate a smooth execution of this project, the mentors will receive cultural awareness training and effective mentoring training. The trainings will be held in conjunction with a retreat off-campus, at the Willits-Hallowell center at Mt. Holyoke College. CS Women has held a teacher’s training and retreat there for their Technical Workshop Series and found it to be highly effective at creating a bond between student-teachers. The CS Women leadership feels that this training will be invaluable for retention of mentors in the program.

Some social events we propose include sending students to Holi, a cultural event organized by one of our collaborating organizations, the Indian Student Association(ISA). ISA has a history of drawing diverse students to their events; in Fall 2015, the ISA Diwali event hosted 260 students, of which 40% of the students were non-Indians. Many of the current students were introduced to the culture of India. We have also been in touch with Iranian, Korean, and Chinese student cultural groups about their events.

In addition to events that showcase individual cultures, we also propose an intercultural event, organized around 4F’s : Food, Flags, Fun, Facts. We propose an informal event where people from different cultures come together and get to know each other while expanding their knowledge and making new professional connections as well. We will feature food from students’ cultural backgrounds; shared activities such as music and dancing; and moderated discussions about issues pertaining to culture shock. We intend to organize this larger event in conjunction with Graduate Women in STEM (GWiS), and connect it with their mentoring workshops, ethical issues workshops, culture shocks and handling workshops, and research collaboration mixers.

The above describes how we intend to use the funds during the Spring semester. However, the mentoring program will not stop in the Spring. We would like to connect it up with our plans for a new mentoring program that will begin in Summer 2016 and conclude over the 2016-2017 academic year. This second part of the proposal describes the lasting impact the first part will have at UMass.

To facilitate interaction between domestic and international students, we will assign “buddy triangles.” These triangles consist of an incoming international graduate student, an incoming domestic graduate student, and one current graduate student. When assigning triangles, we will consider program type (MS/PhD), research focus, gender and cultural diversity, etc.

The interactions between the 3 buddies will begin with a welcome mail from the mentor. The incoming students, especially the international students will need support even before they arrive. Support could be anything ranging from advice on academic issues, such as course selection, advisors, research topics, or labs, to practical issues such as housing, weather, or healthcare. Mentoring activities will begin by early August. We are currently working with the College of Information and Computer Sciences to plan and execute events such as a welcome social and a potluck to display students’ cultures. While the current graduate student would be an anchor for the two incoming students, the pair of the incoming domestic and international students would also build a relationship to support each other and build a network to help them succeed.

We will run this part of the project in CICS, since it is the home of CS Women, and since over 50% of each incoming CICS graduate class are international students. Computer Science is the largest single-subject academic department at UMass, having over 250 graduate students. Once we have completed this second phase of the project, we will write up our experiences and share them with other departments.

There are several benefits of this project in addition to the improved interactions between the international and domestic students. The current students serving as mentors will benefit from this cultural awareness when they serve in leadership positions, such as teaching assistants. We believe this program will also improve the retention of the incoming culturally diverse students and will have a cascading effect as participants transition into professional leadership roles in academia and industry. Their experiences in this program will better prepare them to work with individuals of all cultures and better serve in their mentoring and teaching roles.