Abdifatah Ali stands behind an illustration of a university and networks.

Learning communities lead to more diverse professors

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Almost every U.S. university suffers from the same problem: not enough diversity among the faculty. While student bodies get more diverse, and while some colleges are doing better than others, the search for solutions is universal. A new paper, published in Frontiers in Psychology, offers insight into how to keep graduate students in the classroom as professors. 

Carlson School Assistant Professor Abdifatah Ali and co-authors Steven Thomas, Dukernse Augustin, and Neco Wilson of Michigan State University (MSU), along with independent researcher Karl Alcover, studied outcomes of MSU’s Alliances for Graduate Education and Professoriate (AGEP) chapter. AGEP is a program of the National Science Foundation (NSF) that aims to “significantly increase the number of underrepresented minorities in STEM fields and enhance their preparation for faculty positions.”

Using monthly participant surveys from 2014-2018, the researchers found that MSU’s interdisciplinary and multi-generational program, which included monthly meetings and other community-building events for students from STEM fields and social, behavioral, and economic sciences:

  • provided critical experiences for participants to develop professional identity, psychological safety, and career readiness;
  • achieved a graduation rate north of 70 percent; and
  • led more than half of Ph.D. students and almost 30 percent of master’s degree students deciding to pursue academia as their careers.

“For [students] to be able to come together and have a space to talk about issues that are important to them and to get the resources, both from the college and faculty of color, created a real sense of community,” says Ali, who participated in the program himself while a MSU graduate student from 2013-2017. “A place that doesn't have something like that would benefit from creating that type of community space. The data speaks for itself. Is there a higher retention? Yes. Is there higher graduation? Yes. Is there higher placement? Yes.”

The findings allowed the researchers to create a new model of graduate student capital, looking at contributions across five dimensions: technical, social, psychological, career, and cultural.

Abdifatah Ali stands behind an illustration of a university and networks.
Assistant Professor Abdifatah Ali

It was rewarding to be part of this research, says Ali, in part, because it validated his personal experiences with data. He was one of the few Somali-American males and Californians in the program, arriving on MSU’s East Lansing campus after earning a bachelor's degree in his hometown at San Diego State University. While earning a master’s and PhD in organizational psychology, he studied in the MSU Diversity Lab under Professor Ann Marie Ryan where he honed his research interests: how individuals from diverse backgrounds navigate the workplace. One paper, from 2017, “Calling in Black: Dynamic Model of Racially Traumatic Events on Organizational Resourcing” received newfound attention following the murder of George Floyd. 

Calling the last two years, in particular, a “rollercoaster” both personally and professionally, Ali points to increased interest in almost any diversity, equity, and inclusion topic. His courses are full, projects that once took lots of selling are now funded almost immediately, and almost every company is looking for consulting. He says he’s “privileged” to study, teach, and live his work.

“[No one leaves their identities at the door]. The intersection of the pandemic, the social and civil uprisings, all of those things affect the work place,” said Ali. “So then the question becomes, ‘what is the role of organizations in creating that holding space for people to be able to have those conversations and feel comfortable to bring different dimensions and aspects of themselves to the workplace?’ The answers are only beginning.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2022 Discovery magazine

In this issue, new Carlson School research explores how greater connectivity leads to change, and evaluates the efficiency of health records systems and government spending.

Spring 2022 table of contents