Summer program encourages minority undergraduate research

By Nancy Koeneman

In the world of academia, educators and researchers are looking at
themselves and finding their reflection lacks color.

An 11-year-old program at the UI is helping them paint their future
portraits with a palette that includes underrepresented groups from all
over the country.

The Summer Research Opportunities Program, part of the Committee on
Institutional Cooperation's efforts, starts its second decade on the UI
campus as it recruits minority undergraduate students to taste  the
academic life.

Hopes are that these students, who are part of underrepresented groups in
faculty on most Big 10 campuses, will like what they experience through
S.R.O.P. and pursue academic careers.

"This is one of the best things universities can do," said Vernon Burton,
professor of history and a senior research scientist at the National Center
for Supercomputing Applications. "I think it's so important that we bring a
diversity of people into the history profession and into academics. We have
a lot of wonderful things in the lifestyle of the academic."

Burton has been a participant in S.R.O.P. for several years, receiving an
award last year for the number of years he's volunteered as a mentor.

Faculty members are asked to volunteer as mentors for the students who
qualify for S.R.O.P. After students are accepted into the program, they
look at the kind of research they might want to do and compare it to the
list of faculty members who are available as mentors and what kind of work
those faculty members are doing. The student then asks a suitable faculty
member to serve as a mentor for the summer program.

Approximately two-thirds of the students who participate in the program at
the UI are also UI undergraduate students. The other one-third come from
campuses across the country, and in some cases, from around the world.

"We have one student coming from Cal Tech and another might be coming from
Washington State University. We also might have a student from Puerto
Rico," said Ave Alvarado, assistant to the dean in the Graduate College.
The 15 university campuses that participate in S.R.O.P. have alliances with
minority schools in the U.S. bring students from those schools into this

But it is the faculty mentors that drive this program and make it work,
Alvarado said.

"We've had tremendous success and support from faculty mentors," she said.
"Most are truly involved. I've heard them say they wish they'd had this
opportunity when they were undergraduates."

Norman Denzin, a research professor of communications and a professor of
sociology, has given many summers to S.R.O.P. students. One group of
students under his tutelage did a research project on the interpretation of
social and popular culture through cinema and television representation of
minorities. The students polled audiences who viewed specific TV programs
and movies to measure audience response to the images presented. The
students also compared their own expectations against those represented by
the cinematographers.

"They were doing some sophisticated research for undergraduates," Denzin said.

The students gained experience in research and preparing papers that they
presented later in the program, but Denzin said he also got his rewards for
the work involved.

"I get a lot of enjoyment out of watching them take hold of ideas and
develop them," he said. "When they present their paper, it's a time of
pride. It simulates a professional presentation."

Denzin works with a group of four or five students at a time, gives them a
research office and meets with them as a group and individually to work on
their research. He sees the long-term payoff in that as he serves as a
mentor and role model, eventually his S.R.O.P. students can take his place
and serve as role models themselves.

Burton most recently worked with a student on a computer project, seeking
applications for computer technology to problems a history researcher might
encounter. Another year he took two of his graduate students to his
hometown of Ninety-Six, S.C., to work on research there.

As he works with them, it has been rewarding to see their development, he said.

"It's just wonderful to see how the potential is unleashed in these
students," he said. "I think they make tremendous gains over the summer."

Burton's students also have gleaned success from their experiences.
"One got a fellowship at Northwestern, the other at Stanford. One of my
students published an article with me. The other published an article as
the sole author," Burton said.

Although the project is only for a summer, Burton says he has continued to
work with the students throughout the school year to refine the paper on
their work and prepare it for professional presentation.

Dianne M. Pinderhughes, professor of political science and director of the
Afro-American Studies and Research Program also has seen her students grow
through their work.

"[One student] did a paper on voting rights changes, which was submitted to
the Department of Justice's civil rights division in 1988 or 1989. [Another
student] wrote a paper on electoral politics in Chicago," Pinderhughes

"I enjoy watching their work develop, and in some cases it gives me
additional support for my work. They provide a new approach because they
are coming at it from a fresh perspective," she said. "There are some
costs. It takes some time, but on the balance, I feel it is a good

As the faculty members work with their students through the summer,
S.R.O.P. also provides additional experience through workshops.

"They deal with a number of topics benefiting the students who go on and
pursue graduate study - and we assume most of our students are going to go
on," Alvarado said. A GRE preparation workshop, and a computer-aided
research workshop are just two of the possibilities on this summer's
agenda. The program usually offers a total of five workshops, Alvarado

A total of 70 students come for S.R.O.P. at the UI. In July, past and
current S.R.O.P. students, and their mentors gather at one of the Big 10
universities for a conference. The students present papers on their
work-in-progress and meet other participants from across the country.

"It's much like other academic and professional conferences," Alvarado
said. "It's an excellent opportunity for students to network and to meet
other students who have come through the program in the past."

Past S.R.O.P. participants who are now faculty members are strongly
encouraged to come to the conference, giving the undergraduate students a
chance to see what their future could be, Alvarado said.

Although the program takes time for the mentors, S.R.O.P. is also set up to
help with the costs involved. A $750 research allowance is provided to the
faculty members, which is sometimes supplemented by the departments. The
students are given a stipend.

"In some cases, the students are forfeiting an opportunity to work. It's a
financial loss for them," Alvarado said. "We don't want them to have to
suffer a financial burden."

The program serves African-American, Native American, and Puerto Rican
students who are U.S. citizens. The primary focus of the program is to
recruit quality undergraduate students to graduate school, and eventually
to become faculty members at campuses across the country.

"We've had a tremendous success rate," Alvarado said. "Most of our students
go on to graduate school or professional school, such as law or medicine."

Those who do seek a degree in medicine or law are encouraged to also seek a
Ph.D., so they can teach in addition to their professional work, she said.

The statistics show the success. Over the past 10 years, 67 percent of
S.R.O.P. students went on to graduate school.

Denzin, who is a great fan of the program said those numbers are good.
"It works. That's what I find exciting about it," he said.

UIUC -- Inside Illinois -- 1996/04-18-96