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Fisk and Vanderbilt Build ‘Bridge’ to Science Degrees

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Trey Mack, a doctoral candidate in astronomy, didn’t believe he could land a spot in a great master’s program, let alone a doctoral program, until a friend of a friend introduced him to the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge program.

The Bridge program is unique, pairing an elite research institution — Vanderbilt University — with a historically black college or university — Fisk University —  to give students the opportunity to dual enroll to complete their master’s degree and their doctorate. The ultimate goal is to increase the number of minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.

Mack, who just finished his fifth year in the doctorate program at Vanderbilt and seventh year in the program overall, graduated college from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but his scores on the physics GRE exam led him to believe he didn’t stand a chance at getting into top graduate programs.

Part of the selection process for the Bridge program is about decreasing the emphasis on GRE scores because “the test is just fundamentally biased,” program executive director Dina Myers Stroud said. “Frankly, the misuse of GRE suppresses diversity,” she said. Stroud used an array of graphs comparing scores of students of different ethnicities, showing how minority students’ scores ranked below the scores from white and Asian-American students.

Arnold Burger, co-director of the Bridge program, said that the reason admissions officers in graduate programs don’t acknowledge this issue is because they “believe that diversity and excellence are not mutually exclusive.”

“They rationalize that excellence must have something to do with the GRE,” he said. A few of Burger’s colleagues, Casey Miller and Keivan Stassun, are publishing research in the coming month that will address this issue.

In contrast, the Bridge selection process prioritizes other aspects, like research productivity, publication, degree completion and an array of questions about goals, leadership and perseverance. Stroud said the questions admissions offers ask are very introspective.

“We’re trying to really systematize the way we go about this process,” Stroud said. “We have now provided these things in a toolkit so that other schools can take them and use them.”

While getting his master’s degree, Mack said he was able to boost his score on the physics GRE because of the support and help he received from his mentors.

“I have not just one person, but a team in my corner to help me succeed,” he told a group of EWA members and reporters who visited Fisk in May as part of the 67th National Seminar. “The GRE is a physical barrier, but there are also psychological barriers. You need a lot of different people telling you, ‘No, you can succeed.’ With one person, they could just say it to be nice, but when you’re hearing it from several people who are blunt and candid, you have to think, ‘Maybe I have been shortchanging myself.’”

The program enrolls three to five additional students each year, Stroud said. Every student receives a $1,800 per month stipend, a new laptop when they enter the program, health insurance and free tuition at Fisk. There also are some free tuition spots for doctoral candidates at Vanderbilt if the students are accepted, as most in the Bridge program are.

Some students do choose to go to different universities for their doctorate. In those cases, the Bridge program no longer can help them with funding though they still help with any other form of support they might need as they continue their education. The Bridge program has students in doctoral programs at Yale University, Purdue University, Texas A&M University and University of Texas at Austin, among others.

Stroud said funding for the program comes from an array of federal grants from the National Institute for Health, government entitlement grants such as Title VII, individual research grants supporting students, and institutions that have pledged money, such as Fisk and Vanderbilt.

The Bridge program has been a model for similar programs at MIT, the University of Michigan and a few other schools, Stroud said.