In a new effort to extend and diversify its national outreach to potential graduate and doctoral students, Wayne State University is playing host over the next two weeks to an assortment of students from North Carolina A&T University, a historically Black college, with hopes of eventually recruiting them to campus to pursue master’s and Ph.D. studies.
The HBCU Summer Research Program — which includes campus tours, conversations with faculty and overnight stays in university housing — marks a significant step in the university’s heightened efforts to intentionally draw from the broad national network of HBCUs to fill its graduate school ranks. This summer marks the program’s inaugural run.
“The program is designed to give these students an introduction to Wayne State and also to what it's like to be a doctoral student,” explained Shantelle Cavin, outreach specialist for the WSU Graduate School. “They will get a chance to get acclimated to all the university resources. This is the first year we’ve done this.”
Cavin added that, among other things, the half-dozen visiting students will learn how to put together a statement of purpose — a vital component of a graduate school application that gives students a chance to describe themselves to admissions committees, share their academic and professional interests and explain their value to their graduate program.
This year’s group includes a mix of forward-looking undergraduates as well as graduate students currently considering where to take up their Ph.D. studies after earning master’s degrees.
“When I received the notification about this opportunity, I was excited because I’ve never seen anything like this before, reaching out to somebody like me and to other HBCUs,” said Sierra Boyd, who is pursuing her master’s degree in English and African American literature at North Carolina A&T. “I really liked the focus on that. I also thought it would be a good networking opportunity and a chance to see if I really wanted to take the leap to pursue a doctoral degree.”
Boyd said that she is considering a career in academia, but not necessarily inside the classroom, and came away particularly impressed with the work of WSU’s Office of Multicultural Student Engagement: “I really could see myself working in a multicultural space. I can imagine myself working in a space to make sure inclusion, diversity and excellence are valued.”
Meanwhile, undergraduate student Cheyenne Allen, a rising senior who’s majoring in biology at North Carolina A&T, said she accepted the invitation to the HBCU-targeted initiative partly to help her decide which direction to take after graduation.
“I'm kind of stuck in between pursuing medicine and going to medical school or getting my Ph.D.,” Allen said. “And I thought that this program would push my decision in the right direction. And so far, it’s been great. I really enjoy the biology department. I think the professors I've met have been very open in telling me about their experience, and the graduate students have been very open about telling me how it's been for them. They’ve given me a little bit more insight about, just what goes on and how much it takes. It’s been very insightful, and I think it's helping me make my decision.”
Raised in small, predominantly white town in North Carolina where she too often felt isolated and uncomfortable, Allen also said she’s attracted to Detroit because of its large African American population. “It’s Black. I love it,” she said. “Those are the spaces I enjoy.”
Ashton Brice, another North Carolina A&T graduate student seeking her master’s in English and African American literature, said she hopes to find herself in as supportive and affirming an environment as she’s enjoying currently and enjoyed while pursuing her undergraduate degree at Fayetteville State University, another North Carolina-based HBCU.
“I just love being around my people,” Brice said. “At Fayetteville State, I learned that I can talk how I want to talk and still sound professional. I loved that experience. As far as the next experience, my graduate or Ph.D. experience, I love to learn from people who look like me. I feel like people who look like me drop gems that only y'all can drop, and I get it. I just feel it in my spirit.”
Brice, who was reared in the countryside, said the trip marks the first time she’s experienced a big city by herself.
“It's been really different,” she said. “I'm from the country so I don't really see any of the buildings and any of this. It's a lot going on. I love to look out the window and see all the cars go by. And then the buildings just look so different from where I'm from. It’s cool being in the city.”
For Henri Uchenna, it’s been an even longer journey. Born and raised in Nigeria, Uchenna, who’s pursuing a master’s in biology after earning his bachelor’s degree at Nigeria’s University of Benin, came to the United States 10 months ago to continue his education. He said he chose North Carolina A&T after it earned a “Best HBCU” designation in 2019.
Now, Uchenna said, he wants to concentrate on systems biology and target his work toward large Black communities such as those in Detroit. “I've always had interest in advancing health outcome, especially for diseases that are affecting minorities and underserved communities,” Uchenna explained. “I’m more into health disparities. It's overwhelming for me to know that chances are that, if an African American or Black person comes down with a certain disease, the outcome would be less favorable compared to other communities or other population.
“For me, that is a challenge in the health system that we need to come together to fight, so I have interest in developing therapies that would have a lot of Black representation in the clinical trials. I want to go into clinical research and translational research where we will be the one testing the drugs on ourselves to cure diseases that affect us or diseases that have higher incidence in us.”
Talia Gray, a South Carolina native also working toward her master’s in English and African American literature at North Carolina A&T, said the Wayne State summer outreach effort “came at the perfect time.”
“I'm preparing to start applying to Ph.D. programs,” Gray said, “and, honestly, doing the research online was a little overwhelming. I didn't really know where to start. This just kind of fell from the sky — and was perfect.”
Gray, who also attended South Carolina’s Winthrop University, said her trip to Wayne State has exposed her to approaches to research that she hasn’t encountered elsewhere: “I feel like here, particularly at Wayne State, the program is about research, but I don't think I've had that experience, particularly from undergrad, of talking about research in the way that they approach their research. People have said that they apply their research to the city that they're in and that they use the history of the city and put it in their research and talk about it in that kind of lens. I had never even thought to do that before.”
Meanwhile, Ceyani Pratt, an honors biology student who just completed her freshman year at North Carolina A&T, said that even though she’s not yet close to earning a degree, she is already considering how to adjust her areas of study ahead of graduation.
“Being a biology major, I kind of got bored with it,” admitted Pratt, who is the first person in her family to attend college. “I want to see if biology is something I could tweak a little. Now, I’m thinking of going into nursing, to be a traveling nurse practitioner.”
A native of Philadelphia, Pratt said she was drawn to North Carolina out of a desire to escape big-city life for a while. But her trip to Detroit and to Wayne State, she said, has sparked positive comparisons to another urban research university she’s familiar with.
“It reminds me of being back home, and Wayne State reminds me of Temple University in a sense, because it’s right there in the city,” she said. “I do want to get to see more.”