Sloan Foundation grant continuation to help U. of I. improve STEM minority representation

Lois Yoksoulian for the Illinois News Bureau

The Sloan Center Scholars include four Illinois Physics graduate students. first-year physics grad students Johny Echevers (3rd row, first from left), Marcus Rosales (3rd row, third from left) Michael Highman (3rd row, 6th from left ), and Luis de Jesus Astacio (back row, first from the right).
The Sloan Center Scholars include four Illinois Physics graduate students. first-year physics grad students Johny Echevers (3rd row, first from left), Marcus Rosales (3rd row, third from left) Michael Highman (3rd row, 6th from left ), and Luis de Jesus Astacio (back row, first from the right).
The University of Illinois has received a three-year, $1 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to continue funding for the Sloan University Center of Exemplary Mentoring at Illinois. The program, started in 2015, supports underrepresented minority doctoral students in science, technology, engineering and math fields and is one of nine UCEMs throughout the country.

The UCEM emphasizes mentoring, professional development and social activities to build a community of scholars. The center hosts an extensive orientation program for new students, workshops and seminars in addition to financial support in the form of scholarships. The center also works with departments to set up a mentoring team for each scholar and monitors academic and research progress.

“At Illinois, our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion extends far beyond mere numbers, targets and quotas,” said Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, the dean of the Graduate College. “It is not sufficient to focus on attracting underrepresented minority graduate students to campus; we need to make a concerted effort to retain and mentor them once they arrive. We are excited and grateful that the Sloan Foundation has decided to invest in our UCEM for an additional three years.”

The UCEM reports a variety of successes since its inception, including a 25 percent increase in total underrepresented minority applicants and a 47 percent increase in underrepresented minority enrollment in engineering, mathematical and physical sciences in 17 units across the colleges of Engineering and Liberal Arts and Sciences from 2016 to 2017. 

In addition, 10 of the 54 Sloan Scholars have received National Science Foundation Graduate Research or Ford Foundation Predoctoral fellowships while pursuing their studies.

“The UCEM program has connected me with a large network of underrepresented minority graduate students while supplying me with the tools and support necessary to be successful in my pursuit of a Ph.D.,” said Danielle Harrier, a chemical and biomolecular engineering graduate student and 2018 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship recipient. “The mentorship sends a strong message to minority students that the U. of I. is committed to furthering inclusion in STEM fields of study.”

The program also provides support for unexpected and unique challenges that may come with graduate school.

“With support from the UCEM, I've learned is that it’s OK to struggle,” said atmospheric sciences graduate student Carolina Bieri. “You're not always going to be good at everything, and realizing that is crucial for your growth as an academic. I think students who are members of underrepresented groups tend to put extra pressure on themselves, so this becomes especially important in that context.”

“Presenting research at conferences is a big part of any Ph.D. program, and growing up with a speech impediment made public speaking very challenging for me,” said computer sciences graduate student Sebastian Rodriguez. “The UCEM provides workshops and mentors who are willing to sit down and listen patiently, and provide useful feedback that has helped me become a more confident public speaker.”

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a philanthropic, not-for-profit grantmaking institution based in New York City. The foundation’s Minority Ph.D. Program, which aims to increase the quality and diversity of higher education in STEM fields, provided this grant. For more information, go to

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