F10-D&BP3-3 - Instituting Cultural Change: The Development and Perceived Impact of Retreats on the Long-term Development of Graduate Mentor-Mentee Relationships

2. Research-to-Practice Full Paper
Deanna Sinex1 , Mary Besterfield-Sacre1, Irene Mena1, Melissa Bilec1, Steven Abramowitch1, Sylvanus Wosu1
1 University of Pittsburgh, Swanson School of Engineering

Historical institutional exclusion of underrepresented persons from educational opportunities is a major contributor to the disproportionate numbers of underrepresented persons (UP) who pursue and/or complete undergraduate engineering degrees. Naturally, this directly impacts the number of underrepresented groups who pursue engineering at the graduate level, with only 14.1% and 11.1% of master’s and doctoral degrees in 2018, respectively. While many institutions have successfully increased UP enrollment in doctoral engineering programs, evidence suggests that successful completion of degrees is not only dependent on student aptitude, but also an established community, immersion, and a sense of belonging within the institution.  

 In 2015, University of Pittsburgh (UoP) was awarded the Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate- Knowledge Adoption and Translation (AGEP-KAT) from the National Science Foundation to adopt and adapt evidence-based strategies to improve academic climate and the success of underrepresented doctoral students in engineering (NSF HRD-EHR 1434012). This funding supported the inception of the UoP program, which was designed through the adoption/adaption of evidence-based strategies practiced through UMBC’s Meyerhoff and PROMISE programs, to develop and cultivate an inclusive environment such that retention of underrepresented minority US PhD students is maintained. In concert with intentional fostering of a graduate student community, literature suggests that faculty engagement and buy-in can significantly influence student retention and success. However, this requires cultural acceptance and understanding between and among faculty and students. The increasingly diverse population within the academic setting begs for the intentional creation of environments that promote inclusivity and understanding. Thus, we chose to design an annual mentor-mentee retreat, to meet the following objectives: 1) encourage and promote cultural awareness among faculty and graduate students, 2) to humanize perceptions of faculty and graduate students to one another, 3) to create a community founded upon the desired success of URM graduate students, and 4) to encourage deeper relationships among faculty and their graduate students, as well as other URM graduate students, to promote academic growth and success. Given that our retreat was constructed based on developing an understanding of the UoP’s current climate, as well as evidenced practices, we hypothesized that measurable changes could be assessed.

The overarching goal of the retreat is to have a sustained long-term, positive impact on mentor-mentee relationships. With that said, the purpose, promotion, people, program and place for the particular annual event all contribute to developing and/or enhancing the mentor-mentee relationships. Having now completed four years of retreats, analysis of assessment data and an investigation of the literature reveals the content topics, interaction structures, as well as type of activities that best promote and maintain mentor-mentee relationships. Through field notes, analyzing the structures and agendas of the retreats, post-retreat feedback surveys, as well as reflective interviews with veteran mentors and mentees, we link assessment data to various structures of the retreat and offer a model for other graduate programs to adopt. We aim to inform other STEM graduate programs on how to adapt the retreat to improve faculty engagement and academic climate change to ensure URM doctoral student success.