Campus initiatives connect underserved students to UW–Madison for graduate study

A bright blue sky with white clouds and a long green grass lawn frame this view of Bascom Hall from a distance. Banners featuring Bucky Badger are hanging from the front of Bascom Hall.
Bascom Hall, home to the Graduate School is pictured among the colors of the fall leaves. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW–Madison)

Recent efforts by the UW–Madison Graduate School’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Funding have bolstered outreach and connections to prospective students who have been historically underserved in graduate education, highlighting UW–Madison as a path they can take to further their education and careers.

“These new and continuing initiatives reflect the Graduate School’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and creating spaces where all students can thrive,” said Christopher Yue, assistant dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Funding in the Graduate School.

Virtual Open Houses highlight graduate programs

Over the past year, the Graduate School engaged a record number of prospective students through a new series of Virtual Open House events. Sessions at the event include preparing a strong graduate school application, how to evaluate graduate school offers and funding packages, and life in graduate school.

Attendees at the Virtual Open Houses also get to meet live and online with staff, faculty, and current students from their programs of interest to learn more about what to expect from graduate study at UW­–Madison.

“We want to help prospective students successfully navigate the process of applying to graduate school while also giving them information to help them succeed academically and professionally once they arrive in Madison,” Yue said.

The event was open to any interested undergraduate student, and the Graduate School specifically reached out to underserved and underrepresented student populations to invite them, Yue added.

Social events create space for connection

Once students are in Madison, the Graduate School hosts events that give underrepresented students spaces to connect.

Those events have been a way for new students to get advice from more senior graduate students, and for everyone to make new connections, said Mark Moralez, a graduate student in the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

“People are starting to hang out and build connections with one another that start at these events,” said Moralez, who helps organize the events as a project assistant with the Graduate School Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Funding.

Moralez has also found connections the same way.

“This is my second year in my program but it’s my first year on campus,” he said. “My favorite part about going to these events is just making friends, learning about what other people are doing in their programs, and the trials and tribulations that come from being a grad student during COVID.”

The office’s programming has increased over the past few years, expanding to include virtual cooking classes, arts and wellness activities, and monthly lunches where students connect over catered food from local Black- and brown-owned businesses.

Efforts increase diversity on campus

These efforts, combined with funding initiatives, have resulted in more underrepresented graduate students enrolling at UW–Madison than ever before.

In fall 2021, 1,126 underrepresented students enrolled in graduate degree programs across campus, accounting for 11.5% of all graduate students.

The university also saw record-breaking numbers for underrepresented students who applied to attend and were admitted to UW–Madison this admissions cycle, including a 17% increase in applications, 18% increase in the number of admitted students, and a 30% increase in students who enrolled compared to the previous year.

“At the same time, we know we have more work to do to make sure that underrepresented and historically underserved students who want to pursue graduate education have the opportunity to come here and thrive here,” Yue said.

These figures are based on the number of students who are eligible for the Advanced Opportunity Fellowship (AOF). AOF eligibility includes many students of color and students who participated in programs that support low-income and first-generation students, such as the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program and the PEOPLE Program.

In the last five years, 63% of the AOF-eligible graduate students who have been enrolled in graduate programs at UW­–Madison also call Wisconsin their home state.

“This shows our commitment as an institution to providing opportunities for Wisconsinites to attend a world-class graduate school,” Yue said.

Another key: Funding student success

UW–Madison also provides financial support for underrepresented students and continues to prioritize Advanced Opportunity Fellowships and other funding methods.

Some of this funding is distributed through graduate programs for their individual students’ tuition and research. Schools and colleges also organize Graduate Research Scholars (GRS) communities to provide AOF-eligible students with faculty and staff mentors, networking opportunities, and professional development.

Prospective students who are underrepresented in higher education or are from low-income households can also apply for a fee grant, which covers the cost of applying to up to three graduate programs at UW–Madison.

“Graduate programs have been doing great work to help make UW–Madison accessible to historically underserved students,” Yue said. “They are offering more fee grants for students who are underrepresented in their programs and fields. Second, more programs are evaluating their applications holistically. On top of this, faculty and staff across campus are educating themselves about diversity and inclusion intiatives, often with the help of students who are engaged in this work.”

This fall, the Graduate School also announced a new Minority-Serving Institutions Partnership Program that is focused on creating strong relationships between UW–Madison and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) and creating a pathway for undergraduates from MSIs to learn about and attend graduate school at UW. The program will provide grants to graduate programs with existing partnerships or that want to create new partnerships and facilitate idea sharing across campus to bolster engagement with other institutions.