This entry is part 7 of 29 in the series Fall - 2016


by Kate Hawthorne Jeracki

In addition to expectations and connections, to be successful, first-generation students need one more thing: Aspirations.

Once high school students can visualize themselves doing college work, and once they see the wealth of resources at CSU designed specifically to help them achieve a bachelor’s degree, they can begin to set higher goals. They may have connected with one of the University’s first-generation faculty members, and now want to pursue an advanced degree of their own.

But many undergraduates don’t know how to position themselves for graduate school – what classes to take, how to participate in meaningful research projects, and how to work with faculty members who make recommendations to highly competitive programs.

The Graduate School Prep Academy is a unique, yearlong, formal workshop and mentoring program supporting undergraduate students of color in their applications for graduate school. It is a collaboration between CSU’s Graduate School and the four cultural centers within Student Diversity Programs and Services.

“As far as we know, no one else is doing anything like this at any other university,” said Tammi Vacha-Haase, in her role as associate dean of the Graduate School. “So, we created a cutting-edge program, and plan to share it with graduate schools across the nation.

Increasing the diversity of higher education and fields that require advanced degrees has long been a passion of Vacha-Haase.

“Research indicates the University, as well as the economy and society, is better off with more diverse voices participating in the conversation,” she said.

The first cohort started the Graduate School Prep Academy in Spring 2016; the second will start in January 2017. Seventeen students meet twice a month to discuss their aspirations and receive solid guidance on how to navigate the graduate school application process, including how to gain the skills, experience, and relationships that will make them attractive to programs. The first semester involves the exploration of graduate school, the second semester includes the application processes, and the final semester incorporates implementation and next steps.

As part of the process, a panel of professionals of color in disciplines ranging from medical research to government agency management, social work to business administration, shared their stories of what it was like to take the scary step into a master’s program, which they agreed was as different from undergraduate work as college was from high school. They all said, despite the sacrifices required, earning the advanced degree was worth it – and took them places they never imagined they would be working when they first applied to grad school.

“We make them aware of scholarship opportunities for first-generation and students of color, and how to choose a program, and support them through the application process, but that’s not the most important part of the Academy,” said Vacha-Haase. “We see they have the ability to do graduate-level work, even if no one else has ever told them they could. We let them know we believe in them and we support them in their journey.”

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