Amanda Brambila is now a molecular, cell and developmental biology doctoral candidate at UC Santa Cruz, but she started as a community college student commuting across the border from Mexico every day. There, a professor encouraged her to join a National Institute of Health summer program that submerged her into the world of research.

Students of color are and have been systemically underrepresented in higher education, but in graduate schools the gap in diversity widens further. Without having grown up around people who have post-graduate degrees, getting to and succeeding in graduate school as a traditionally marginalized student can be a different experience from those of more privileged students.

“I’m a first-generation college student, my parents, they knew nothing about the school system here,” Brambila said. “[…] I had to figure a lot of things out on my own until I started getting mentors. It’s through the experiences that we hear from mentors that have gone through the same things or the same challenges that we face that we’re able to also surpass whatever challenge.”

Graduate students are influential in encouraging undergraduates to go to graduate school, becoming leaders in their fields, for example as professors. People of color and other underrepresented students also bring diverse perspectives to research and their fields.

Illustration by Ella Apuntar.

Currently, UCSC’s undergraduate population is composed of about 31.4 percent white, 27.6 percent Hispanic/Latino and 4.2 percent African American students. In graduate school, the percentage of white students increases to almost 40 percent, while Hispanic/Latino make up 10.7 percent and Black 3 percent. Underrepresented ethnicities showed “very small gains” in graduate school composition since 2009, according to UCSC graduate admissions statistics.

“We have to do a lot better if we’re ever going to really have a fully representative set of economic opportunities and a fully representative set of professional opportunities,” said Tyrus Miller, dean of Graduate Studies at UCSC. “One of the ways in which we have to address that really is in the educational system.”

Lack of diversity in research and education can have tangible consequences. For example, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine targets strains most commonly seen in white women and doesn’t account for genetic variation with different types of vaccines. New research is now being done to create a new vaccine that would focus more on including African Americans in clinical trials and research studies.

Although enriching the overall environment of graduate school and quality of research being done is important, the conversation surrounding diversity tends to touch on how it benefits those from non-diverse backgrounds. But that’s not why underrepresented students attend.

“My choice to go to grad school wasn’t to benefit other people,” said Londen Johnson, a molecular, cell and developmental biology doctoral candidate. “It was, how am I going to get myself to a place I need to be?”

Underrepresented students often come to graduate school with help from programs like the National Institute of Health summer program, which Amanda Brambila participated in. These focus on mentoring students by helping them understand the requirements for successful graduate applications and get experience in research, which is often required before entrance to graduate schools, especially in STEM fields.

Once at graduate school, things like microaggressions and imposter syndrome can also get in the way of success.

“There’s some techniques I haven’t done and I literally will pretend I’ve done them because people will think I’m dumb if I told them I don’t, and I shouldn’t feel that way,” said Angela Amorello, a doctoral candidate in biochemistry. “I should be able to say, I don’t know how to do this, I’m already in the program, you have to teach me. It shouldn’t be like I have to be afraid and pretend I know things [that] I don’t just to feel comfortable.”

Because of this, she and Johnson stressed the importance of having a community of people of color to support each other and bring more students of color into graduate education spaces.

To foster this community, UCSC Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) of which Amanda Brambila chapter president, is starting to outreach to middle and elementary school students from low-income or predominantly Latinx schools. Achieving diversity in graduate schools begins with encouragement, and starting at a young age can decrease difficulties and increase achievement for underrepresented students in graduate schools.

“We’re targeting those [students] so they can get encouraged to pursue higher education, get their bachelor’s, go to college,” Brambila said. “And know that they can make it to whatever they want to achieve.”