Resources: Cultivating More Ethnic-Minority Ph.D. Students

A couple weeks ago I read an interesting article by Matthew Wesley Williams on the Fund for Theological Education website. It the article Williams goes through three vital elements needed to encourage ethnic-minorities to pursue doctorate work. This is a salient issue within ethnic-minority seminarians. Many choose to go into ministerial work because there is more personal, profession, and spiritual validation in ministry – especially within one’s ethnic group – than in academia – especially when most academic institutions are predominantly White and operate from  a White or White-Christian paradigm.
Many of these same issues are present in trying to move undergraduate ethnic-minorities into academia rather than “professions” and as I read what Williams wrote I found my self agreeing with his assessment. Specifically, I have had a couple of key experiences (point # 2) and interpersonal interactions (point # 3) which have guided me and encouraged me towards graduate work. Without these relationships, I don’t believe I would have the same eagerness to pursue further schooling. Take a read of William’s thoughts and let me know what you think.

1. Critical mass of faculty of color

If you find a steady stream of students of color in an M.Div. program who are considering Ph.D. work, there are probably more than one (or two) faculty of color present.  This is not just a matter of students admiring and wanting to emulate a scholar who looks like them (although that is important).  It is most often the case that these scholars lend legitimacy to the research questions that students of color bring to the academic enterprise. These questions emerge from experiences in congregations and communities whose perspectives are often marginalized in the academy.  Students find that faculty who can see the world through their eyes are more likely to affirm the importance of research interests that take seriously the experiences and perspectives of the communities from which they come.

2. Curricular and extracurricular opportunities for mentoring and preparation

Are there opportunities in the M.Div. curriculum for students to take electives, seminar courses, or directed studies in which they will have the opportunity to engage seminal thinkers in one or more disciplines? Are there writing groups or research forums that serve as spaces set apart for students to consider and explore scholarship as a potential vocational path?  Whether driven by student interest or faculty initiative, schools that send underrepresented students to doctoral programs have programmatic opportunities for students to be grapple critically with the thinkers and texts they will encounter in graduate school.  Most importantly, these spaces engage students, many for the first time, in the rigor and discipline of advanced academic writing and research.

3. Faculty “shoulder tapping”

I have heard some variation of this testimony numerous times from scholars of color who reflect with deep gratitude on the “cloud of witnesses” who helped them along the journey: “Before [insert faculty mentor name here] suggested I consider doing a Ph.D., I only considered pastoral ministry as a calling. But her encouragement enabled me to consider the possibility that teaching and scholarship is a call worthy of my life.” In most cases there was some one, some professor who in the red marks scribbled on a student’s essay, inviting him to office hours to discuss the argument he was trying to develop. There was a teacher who simply took the time to ask the question, “Have you ever considered doing doctoral work?”


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