Eighteen years ago, Nina Maung-Gaona, now 43, gathered 33 underrepresented minority graduate students at New York’s Stony Brook University in hopes of giving them an academic peer group to which they felt a sense of belonging. Since then, she has made it her mission to help hundreds of aspiring scientists and scholars succeed in their fields. The results are staggering: Since 1999, Stony Brook has increased the number of its minority doctoral students in STEM fields by 300 percent.
I would only come to truly understand the theoretical roots and empirical evidence of how essential a sense of belonging is during my doctoral training — decades after I personally and intrinsically experienced the challenges to belonging as a young child. As the daughter of multicultural parents, I was never Korean enough for my mom’s circle of friends; never Burmese enough for my dad’s; and faced with constant pressure from peers and teachers to be more “American” (whatever that meant). To an impressionable immigrant kid, the result was a childhood and adolescence brimming with questions of identity. As I learned to navigate this cultural milieu, I developed multiple, nested, cultural identities. I found that I could simultaneously belong in any group (partially) and in no group (completely). Luckily, I found a sense of belonging in my diverse church. It was there that I would learn the power of community in fostering an individual’s sense of belonging.
Looking back now, there were two factors that greatly influenced my perspective and purpose. The first is that my parents were exemplars of hard work and determination. Despite their education and experience, they both had difficulty finding decent paying jobs. My mom, despite having almost a decade of experience as an operating room nurse in Germany, worked in a garment factory for her first 14 years in the United States — sometimes making as little as a penny per garment. My dad’s first job in America was pumping gas at a local Amoco station and relying on tips. In his native Burma, he was a popular and respected instructor of German language and literature at the national university. My parents, like many immigrants, sacrificed a lot to pursue the American dream for their children’s future. They were educated professionals who, in their mid-to-late 30s, were starting all over again. As a family of four (with my younger sister) and no extended family, we lived day to day. We dreamed of a better future but could never really plan for it because planning (like having a retirement account one day), in its most pragmatic sense, was a privilege we did not have.
The second is that I have been fortunate to have had wonderful mentors throughout my life and career. I was lucky enough to find mentors who, like me, had diversity in their life experiences, pathways to success and professional identities. By their example, they showed me that my own struggles added value and depth to my professional advancement and to my role as a mentor for others. Their vision and valuing of diversity inspires me to continue building communities of inclusion and belonging through mentoring in everything I do.
I came to Stony Brook in 2000 as program coordinator for the Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP ) program, a grant funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) designed to increase the number of underrepresented minority students completing doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. At that time, there were 33 enrolled graduate students who fit that description from a pool of thousands. The NSF’s call was to triple that number. I set out to meet each and every one of these 33 students. What I found was that many of them didn’t know one another but would eventually grow to develop powerful peer mentoring relationships through the Center for Inclusive Education community.
We now know from research that underrepresented STEM students face psychosocial challenges while in pursuit of their graduate degrees. The absence of a sense of community and belonging can make an already demanding academic undertaking even more challenging. Many underrepresented students are first in their family to pursue a doctoral degree, the highest degree granted by a university. Some of them may even be the first generation in their family to attend college. Establishing the Center for Inclusive Education, or CIE, in 2002 with my co-creators has been my biggest career accomplishment to date because it represented Stony Brook University’s commitment to supporting the community of diverse graduate scholars in STEM fields at our institution. Our diverse students now have an identity-safe physical space, where they can gather and support one another. I’m very proud that Stony Brook University is nationally recognized for providing a path toward upward income mobility and certainly the success of many CIE students is a testament to that.
As a product of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, I, too, am a testament to the benefits of SUNY’s affordable and excellent education. I received my BA and MPA degrees from the University at Albany. Like many students who come from families with economic hardships, I couldn’t consider staying on for a doctoral degree when I completed my master’s in 1997. I needed to get a job and help my family. More than a decade into my position at the CIE, I decided to go back to school and pursue the PhD, which I completed in 2017 at Stony Brook University. As a career woman, a married mother of three children and a dedicated daughter and sister, it was the toughest balancing act I ever faced. As a nontraditional student, it felt awkward to be back in the classroom and take exams, give presentations and learn new cutting-edge technologies and skills. Once again, those questions of identity I struggled with as a child rose up. The very CIE students I served not only were my inspiration to overcome this challenge, but also became my support in believing that I would complete my degree. I persisted because of them, for them and with them.
Today, the CIE’s funding base has grown to seven grant programs totaling more than $10 million. This includes substantial support from Stony Brook University through the Graduate School. Funding through the CIE is available for fellowships, academic training opportunities, professional development and research experiences to support degree advancement and the pursuit of scientific and academic careers. Among the various signature CIE activities, the “Research Café,” which provides a monthly platform for CIE doctoral students to present their research to their colleagues, is highly effective. The students gain valuable experience and receive feedback they can use when presenting papers at conferences and eventually when they defend their doctoral work before a panel of professors. After they share their research, we celebrate their work by displaying poster-size features about it on the center’s “wall of fame.”
Another effective activity is the Community of Student Mentors program, which was designed by CIE students early in CIE’s inception as a mechanism to ensure that students keep tabs on one another on regular basis. There’s something incredibly powerful to tell students that our practice here is to “look to your left and look to your right” and find your peers right there next to you, ready to help you when you need it and cheer you when you make it!
In 2016, I transitioned into a new role as the university’s associate vice president for research. Advocating for diversity is very much part of the job description. People think diversity is just a number you have to attain. It’s not about that; it’s about building an institutional culture of belonging, eliminating visible and invisible barriers to accessing opportunities, and creating an inclusive community of dedicated mentors.