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The ultimate support system

How the U’s African American Doctoral Scholars Initiative is helping students find success.

La’Shaye Cobley was in the middle of working toward her doctorate at the U when she found out about a new program designed specifically for students like her.

La'Shaye Cobley

La’Shaye Cobley, one of the first to graduate of the African American Doctoral Scholars program.

“I was the only black person in my graduate program,” said Cobley. “I was very isolated in terms of seeing people who looked like me. And oftentimes I would need tailored advice that I couldn’t get from members of my department.”

Cobley was studying biology when she heard about the African American Doctoral Scholars Initiative (AADSI). The purpose of the initiative is to provide African American doctoral students financial and academic support and a network of peers and mentors to bolster their success as students and professionals. The program is a multidisciplinary effort created to help eradicate systemic racism in institutions of higher learning by addressing and tackling the inequities faced by African American students.

“AADSI gave me a space where I could see people who looked like me and I think the beauty of the diversity of those people was that there were even other scientists,” said Cobley. “It was really a way to see myself reflected and to realize that I wasn’t alone.”

Cobley said she would meet other African American doctoral students, but they were rarely in the sciences. Through AADSI she had a mentor, Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, an assistant professor of chemistry at the U, who helped her stay on task, made sure that she was submitting papers to the right journals and gave her encouragement.

“She was another sounding board for academic rigor, which in a lot of ways is another thing I needed,” said Cobley. “Hearing those same messages that I already had, but from people who looked like me.”

Since its launch in fall 2017, the initiative has provided 20 students with scholarships, mentorship and support. Eligible students can earn up to $7,500 in scholarships that can be used toward research expenses and conference travel. Graduates of this program learn how to write grants, attend writing retreats and dissertation bootcamps and have opportunities to publish their research.

Students who are accepted into the program must fulfill academic requirements such as attending webinars and writing reflection papers. Cobley didn’t think the extra requirements were a hindrance but rather integrated well with what was required for her doctorate.

“They don’t ask you to do anything that you wouldn’t already be thinking about,” said Cobley. “So, they’re asking you to go to conferences each year. That’s already a part of your requirements and they’re asking you to go to writing retreats. I think all the requirements dovetail really nicely with what is already being expected of you.”

But for Cobley, the greatest takeaway from AADSI was the community.

“They are my academic brothers and sisters, but also my social brothers and sisters,” said La'Shaye CobleyCobley. “It was really great to genuinely not be alone. It gave me the motivation to keep going. I think in a lot of ways there was burnout prior to getting accepted and it gave me people I could talk to.”

As one of the first graduates of the program, Cobley is now a fellow at the California Council on Science and Technology. She credits the program with helping her succeed and still is utilizing some of the resources and mentors in her arsenal.

“Even now if something happened, I would email them for advice,” said Cobley. “They are now in my fleet of support system.”

To be eligible for the program, students must self-identify as a member of the African American community, be accepted into a doctoral program at the U, be a full-time student, have earned a 3.0 cumulative GPA or higher, be a U.S. citizen and be able to demonstrate a commitment to understanding black life, history and culture in the United States.

Applications for 2020-21 will be accepted starting April 1, 2020.