An esteemed Communication Studies department brought sophomore Isa Escobio to Ball State University. Someday, after she earns her doctorate, she hopes to return here to teach.

If it happens, she’ll have the university’s PhD Pathways program to thank for leading her back to her alma mater.

“Because of this program, I have a faculty mentor reassuring me I can do this — that I’m more than capable of completing a master’s program,” said Escobio, who’s majoring in interpersonal communication studies. “It makes me feel like less of a deer in the headlights.”

Since fall 2012, a growing number of underrepresented students like Escobio have entered the program, which addresses a longtime issue in higher education — the need for more diversity among professors. Nationwide, according to a recent study, 10 percent of tenure-track faculty are minorities.

Charlene Alexander sees similar room for improvement at Ball State. That’s one reason the director of the Office of Institutional Diversity (OID), which facilitates the program, hopes PhD Pathways students eventually join Ball State’s faculty.

“This program is one way we can work to bridge that gap,” said Alexander, who also is the associate provost for diversity, “as we know a more diverse faculty would enhance Ball State’s welcoming community.”

Four women seated at a table going over documents

PhD Pathways administrators credit its growth — the program grew in size by nearly 75 percent since last year — to a group of graduate assistants who help promote it. They include (clockwise from left): Jaylin Lee, Paulina Wojtach, Allison Cipriano and Maegan Pollanais. (Photo by Samantha Blankenship)

During the 2016-17 academic year, 68 students with GPAs of 3.0 or higher were selected to participate, a more than 74 percent increase over last year’s class of 39. PhD Pathways pairs the students with faculty mentors, and they meet frequently in one-on-one sessions.

“Our job is to get them excited about higher education as a career,” Alexander said. “We help them learn what it takes to get into graduate school. That can be everything from GRE prep to learning more about the grad school application process. We also encourage our faculty mentors to find opportunities to help engage them in research.”

‘Planting the seed’

PhD Pathways began five years ago as a pilot program spearheaded by Charles Payne, the previous assistant provost for diversity, and Robin Phelps-Ward, MA ’12 EdD ’15, then a doctoral graduate assistant for Ball State’s College of Communication, Information, and Media (CCIM). Today, the alumna is an assistant professor of higher education and student affairs at Clemson University.

Back then CCIM pioneered the program with about 14 students. Today, that number — which now represents students throughout the entire university — has quadrupled, and few things bring more joy to CCIM Associate Dean Lori Byers than watching undergraduates “breeze past our offices on their way to visit the PhD Pathways office.

“In our experience, few people consider graduate school without someone else, like a professor, first tapping them on the shoulder and planting the seed.”

Alexander credits the growth of PhD Pathways to positive buzz spurred by a group of graduate assistants who’ve thrown themselves into promoting the program.

One of those graduate students was Jaylin Lee, who recently graduated with her master’s degree in speech pathology. As a first-generation college student who participated in PhD Pathways, Lee wanted to stay involved to help other students discover its benefits.

She and fellow graduate students Allison Cipriano, a master’s student of social psychology; Maegan Pollonais, a doctoral student of voice and educational psychology; and Paulina Wojtach, a master’s student of clinical mental health counseling and social psychology, worked to develop new goals for the program.

Some of their ideas — such as broadening the scope of underrepresented students to include the LGBTQ community and students with disabilities — are being implemented. Their main responsibilities include planning numerous workshops and events, recruiting students, matching them with faculty, and ensuring the resulting mentoring relationships are positive and ongoing.

Guiding students toward graduate school makes the hundreds of hours they’ve invested in the program worthwhile, Pollonais said.

“When you read these applications and see some students saying they’re the first person in their family to go to college, it makes you realize what you’re doing is helping pave a path for them, helping them create dreams they can fulfill.”

Open to all majors

As the number of students involved in PhD Pathways climbs, so, too, must the number of faculty. Last year, 41 professors volunteered as mentors; this year that number rose to 56 across all colleges.

Katherine Denker is Escobio’s mentor. An associate professor of communication studies, Denker has been involved with the program since its inception. Escobio is her third mentee. Each week the pair meet, often in Denker’s office in the Letterman Building, to catch up.

Denker said the program allows her to contribute to the next generation of academics. “During my own undergrad career, I wasn’t as aware of what grad school would look like. Something like this would have helped me know what I was stepping into.”

Sophomore Isa Escobio sits with Katherine Denker in Denker's office.

Sophomore Isa Escobio (right) is the third student Katherine Denker (left) has mentored in the PhD Pathways program. (Photo by Don Rogers)

Escobio loves how PhD Pathways has gotten her serious about work she’ll be doing as a graduate student, like undertaking a research project focused on families with members who identify as transgender.

“There’s no way I’d have looked into doing something like this as a sophomore if it wasn’t for PhD Pathways,” said Escobio, a Mexican-American who grew up in Texas. Today her mother lives in Bloomington, Indiana, while her father resides in Mexico City. During a recent mentoring session, talk between her and Denker turned to Escobio visiting her father.

“Being able to connect with a professor outside of class like this, in such a relaxed way,” she said, “is really special.”

PhD Pathways mentor Matt Stuve, an associate professor of educational psychology, meets regularly with Katharine Otolski, a senior in special education. Together, the pair have worked on building a teaching portfolio and conducting research that targets the importance of a portfolio for teaching majors like Otolski.

“Katharine will come to me with an academic quandary or a technical question, and in a way it’s as if she and I get to be in a course together,” Stuve said. “I think more students need that kind of structured, ongoing mentoring alongside their professors.”

While others schools have similar kinds of undergraduate-graduate “bridge” programs, many are STEM-exclusive or are part of a federal or national program. What makes PhD Pathways stand out is how it is open to students of all majors, a fact Escobio appreciates.

“To me that indicates that not one major is more important than the other,” said Escobio, who also likes the long-term aspiration of the program to draw its graduates back to Ball State to teach. “I would love to come back here … that would like be a dream come true.”