Diversifying the student body: GRIT working to support underrepresented students in STEM

July 6, 2021

Founded at the University of Chicago in 2017, the Graduate Recruitment Initiative Team (GRIT) is dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and advocating for graduate students from backgrounds historically marginalized and underrepresented in the University’s Biological Sciences Division (BSD) and Physical Sciences Division (PSD). The group is currently expanding to include the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), the Department of Psychology, and the Medical Science Training Program. 

GRIT is committed to building community for students when they arrive and throughout their time on campus. With more than 100 graduate student members, GRIT is divided into four leadership teams—the Womxn’s, LGTBQ+, Disabilities, and Underrepresented Minorities teams—focused on developing programming that creates welcoming spaces for and shares the obstacles experienced by scientists from marginalized and underrepresented groups. 

“We consistently state that it isn't enough to simply recruit students to the University of Chicago,” says Jimmy Elias, GRIT’s retention co-director and Ph.D. candidate in the Cell and Molecular Biology program. “Retention and recruitment are dependent upon one another. It’s incredibly important to ensure that students find a supportive and inclusive environment so that they can overcome the hardships of grad school and succeed.”

A large portion of GRIT’s work involves organizing multiple retention events each month, which are open to all graduate students across the University. Events include everything from book clubs to mental health check-ins to speaking spaces to public talks, which focus on building community and creating supportive student networks. In an annual half-day retreat for members, the student community has an opportunity to come together and learn how to be better and supportive allies of one another’s unique identities. Each of the retention teams puts together programming that includes a case study and group discussion. 

“Mutual allyship is the biggest component of GRIT’s community, and this is a great opportunity for us to think about the intersectionality of identity and see similarities and differences between the challenges faced by each student as a result of those intersecting identities,” said Rossteen Mansouri-Rad, recruitment co-director and Ph.D. candidate in Neurobiology. 

GRIT also serves as a resource for students interested in advancing diversity and inclusion within their own units. This community helps members share ideas and practices to improve equity for students at the departmental level. The organization also supplies a network for broader advocacy for a variety of equity issues on campus, including the desire to hire more faculty of color, appoint more students to admissions committees, and promote the establishment of funded internship positions for graduate students working on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in the BSD.

GRIT is actively involved in graduate student recruitment efforts and sends cohorts of student representatives to conferences like the annual meeting of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) and the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS). GRIT also collaborates with the PSD Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion to present student-led panels at universities, research programs, and UChicago-based events in order to recruit students from groups underrepresented in the sciences. 

In April, GRIT partnered with the Chicago Center for Conflict Resolution to provide a conflict resolution training designed to help navigate managing conflict in a way that strengthens morale and improves relationships. It also co-sponsored the University’s first Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice (DEIJ) retreat in partnership with the BSD Diversity Committee. Also held in April, the goal of the retreat was to bring together the many different groups who are discussing and organizing DEIJ efforts within the BSD. By sharing this knowledge, students and faculty members learned about efforts and programs happening in other areas and discussed how to advocate for further change within their own units. More than 190 people attended the retreat, which featured GRIT co-founder Christina Roman, a Ph.D. candidate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics, interviewing guest speaker Valerie Jarrett, former Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, about career paths, the current climate of diversity and inclusion across multiple disciplines, and empowering students to feel like they can enact change. 

All graduate students are invited and encouraged to connect with GRIT.

“It offers students the chance to self-reflect on personal privileges they have, and challenges them to understand the challenges faced by students with differing identities on campus,” Mansouri-Rad said. “Because of this, GRIT fosters a warm and welcoming environment of support. Knowing you are surrounded by a community of students committed to supporting the identities of all students on campus makes GRIT meetings and events a place where we can all feel comfortable to express everything that makes us the unique individuals we are and know we will be supported.”

For more information, visit the GRIT website.