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Undergraduate Research

Resources for course-based undergraduate research experiences

Concerns

One of the most salient concerns/issues with for credit undergraduate research opportunities is an issue of equitable distribution of opportunities. While CUREs are often proposed as a way to distribute undergraduate research opportunities more equitably than relying on limited and competitive research internships available to undergraduate students, CUREs can still encounter issues of inequity that disadvantage students from underserved communities. It is imperative that for credit undergraduate opportunities be designed with these issues in mind such that they are able to minimize/mitigate issues of inequity. 

Healy and Jenkins (2009) suggest an institutional and broader cultural reimagination of the very goals pursued by higher education. They suggest a reconceptualization of higher education’s raison d’être from that of knowledge acquisition to knowledge discovery for all students, not just those that prove particularly keen. Healy and Jenkins (2009) thus promote a refocus of higher education onto that of education as opposed to the reputations, academic might, accolades, and publications pursued by so many institutions.  While this is too broad of an issue for this one guide to dissect and work to correct, faculty practices for supporting underserved students effectively can be addressed meaningfully here.

Issues of inequity crop up partially due to limited resources and support for faculty facilitating undergraduate research opportunities on scale. Other issues of inequity emerge from oppressive biases and attitudes against underserved communities around student efficacy, intelligence/ability, and deservedness. Shanahan (2018) suggests various practices developed specifically to address inequity experienced by students from lower income backgrounds, racial and cultural minorities, and first generation students. Below are five ways to meaningfully mentor and support students from underserved communities.

  • Seeking out and recruiting diverse students intentionally
    Literature on undergraduate research emphasizes over and over again that there is both a systemic and interpersonal selection bias that works against underserved students (Shanahan, 2018) .Systemically, programs that require volunteered or otherwise unpaid labour hours from students, exceptional time commitments, inconsistent schedules, and extensive travel discriminate against students not from middle to upper class families. Students can have multiple part time jobs to fund their education and/or family, caretaker responsibilities to dependents like children or sick relatives, or no disposable income to spend on travel, equipment, or registration costs. Intentionally designing URE's to be for-credit, fairly compensated, finding opportunities for greater financial support, and/or flexible to students' required accommodations can alleviate such barriers. Interpersonally, faculty are not immune to misinformed and discriminatory biases that prevent them seeing underserved students as viable candidates for research opportunities. Attending equity, diversity, and inclusion workshops, intentionally educating one's self on barriers students face, and enacting practices that create safer spaces for diverse students can challenge the the interpersonal barriers students encounter in academia. 
  • Bridge-building between academia and home life
    Shanahan (2018) notes that first generation students in particular but not exclusively experience conflicting priorities and senses of identity as they begin to develop academic identities. Students from underserved communities can often experience a profound internal struggle that students can face when there is little overlap between academic priorities and commitments and home priorities and commitments (Stephens et al, 2012). Faculty can help to alleviate the friction of seemingly divergent identities by connecting them to mentors from underserved communities or following a community mentoring model in which a team of faculty and graduate students work with students such that they have more flexibility in who they feel most like they can be their authentic selves around (Kobulnicky & Dale, 2016). However, in mentoring students in their development of academic identities, it is critical for students to maintain their foundational identities rooted in home/family/culture. Becoming a scholar should not mean students relinquish their diverse identities, perspectives, and experiences. Rather, mentors who highlight the benefits of a diverse perspectives can help the two identities coalesce.
  • Alleviating minority students’ “racial battle fatigue” and isolation on campus
    Students from underserved communities are often tasked with the responsibility conversations about diversity, to demonstrate that their diverse identities do not hinder their academic performance or "fit" within a research team. It is important to acknowledge and openly facilitate conversations about racialization, social disadvantage, and the value of diversity in research without making the student advocate for themselves (Shanahan 2018).
  • Committing to a long-term relationship with student-researchers and making oneself accessible and open to their needs
    Experiences of financial precarity and unpredictable stressors throughout life for some students in underserved communities make expectation setting at the beginning of the mentoring relationship critical to students sense of safety and commitment (Shanahan, 2018). Faculty can communicate their availability for meetings and email responses early on, plan for breaks from research that may come up (e.g. when faculty are away attending conferences), and accommodate students communication needs in order to set expectations for students (Shanahan, 2018). Practices that work to prepare and explain cultural and professional expectations can help students to navigate their academic surroundings and experience less stress from unpredictability. 
  • Advocating for and sharing power with students, especially through professional
    As discussed previously, it is critically important to share power and control of the research process with students as they begin to build greater academic skills and literacies. The practice of sharing power assists students to feel a sense of ownership and control over their scholarly work and ultimately develop a sense of self as a valuable member of the scholarly community. Colleague-like relationships with students are especially helpful when mentoring students from underserved communities that face particular barriers to seeing themselves and members of their community as valued contributors to scholarly knowledge (Shanahan, 2018). Connecting students with other scholars in their field of interest and assisting in their navigation of what might be an unfamiliar cultural landscape are also ways to facilitate the development of an academic identity. Mekolichick and Bellamy 2012).