Research News

Winkle-Wagner explores role of mentoring in helping underrepresented students succeed

February 10, 2016

UW-Madison’s Rachelle Winkle-Wagner is the lead author of a recent article that examines the role of faculty mentoring in helping underrepresented students succeed in their pathways into and through graduate education.

This critical multisite case study appears in the March/April issue of The Journal of Higher Education, and is titled, “Entering the (Postgraduate) Field: Underrepresented Students’ Acquisition of Cultural and Social Capital in Graduate School Preparation Programs.”

Winkle-Wagner is an associate professor with the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, and is an affiliate with the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education. The paper is co-authored with Dorian McCoy, an assistant professor with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Tennessee.

In the paper’s abstract, the authors note how their multi-site case study examines the role of humanities graduate preparation programs in facilitating underrepresented undergraduate students’ socialization to the field of graduate education.  Such programs, the study reports, are “crucial to bidirectional anticipatory socialization for graduate education, where one gains new ideas but does not abandon one’s background. Additionally, these programs helped in the acquisition of the type of cultural and social capital that are likely to be relevant to disciplinary knowledge, skills and competencies in graduate education.”

The report explains how those who self-identify as white are more than twice as likely to have earned a doctorate as are black people, and are three times as likely as are people who self-identity as Latino. Against this backdrop, the researchers examined the role of two humanities summer institutes in facilitating graduate school socialization for underrepresented undergraduate students with graduate school aspirations. Socialization is important to study, the authors explain, because it could potentially help students to gain access to graduate programs and to be successful in those programs.

“These summer institutes helped to reframe how we think about ways to socialize underrepresented students into graduate education,” says Winkle-Wagner.  “Rather than making students to feel as if their backgrounds are a deficit, these summer institutes helped students to identify strategies for acquiring new skills and knowledge while also empowering them to bring their backgrounds with them into the academy.”  

The following research question, the authors note, guided their project: “How do underrepresented undergraduate students and faculty within graduate school preparation programs describe the graduate school socialization processes that occur within these programs?”

The authors conclude their report by writing: “This study of underrepresented students’ experiences in humanities summer institutes found that for underrepresented students, these experiences provided a way to enter the field of English graduate programs. The institutes offered a form of bidirectional socialization that was facilitated through field-specific social and cultural capital acquisition. Through fostering knowledge of the field of English and academia, and by developing students’ skills, competencies, and knowledge of what it means to be a graduate student in the humanities, students were able to acquire both the cultural and social capital that they and institute faculty asserted could help them to succeed in doctoral programs.”

They add: “Importantly, the participants were not simply taught how to mold themselves to fit graduate school. They were encouraged to create a space for themselves in the academy. Underrepresented students were socialized to make the field fit them.”

To learn much more about this in-depth report and the many nuances associated with this topic, make sure and read the entire report for free on this Journal of Higher Education web page.