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NIH’s ‘Minority Scholars’ program helps produce Ph.D.s

Kenneth J. Cooper | 8/29/2012, 9:22 a.m.

“The financial support helped me out a great deal, especially since I had my son,” said Hudson, 22. “I didn’t have to worry about finding a job while I was going to school.”

When he wrote the grant proposal, Weinbaum said it was obvious that minority students needed stipends so they could enroll full-time and concentrate on their studies.

Weinbaum said requiring research was key because “you can’t get students to go on to a Ph.D. if you don’t really give them a feeling for what research is.”

Despite his foresight, the results after the first five years were disappointing.

“We didn’t [do] so great after the first grant. Our retention was not what I had hoped,” Weinbaum concedes. He recalls an average of 54 percent of students had stuck with the program each year.

Many students could not maintain a 3.0. Was the bar set too high? An outside evaluator pinpointed insufficient study skills, poor time management and difficult courses that gave students trouble.

The review led Weinbaum to make two changes: Each of the Minority Scholars would get “their own personal PhD mentor,” and tutors who were also teaching assistants would be available for difficult courses, which included calculus and chemistry.

“The retention in the program had a precipitous jump,” Weinbaum noted. Retention averaged 74 percent over the last five years and hit 100 percent more than once.

Weinbaum put Yuliya Vengrenyuk in charge of the tutors. The immigrant from the Ukraine in the former Soviet Union had been his teaching assistant in one of his classes when an unprecedented half of the students got an A on an exam.

Vengrenyuk had a simple explanation for why that happened: “I helped all students, not just the A students.”

At first, not all minority students were eager to seek her help.

“The hardest group to come was the black males. Whether it was a sense of embarrassment or not feeling comfortable with a white woman, I don’t know,” Weinbaum said. “But she called each one up personally and insisted that they come, and they came. By halfway through the semester, everybody was seeing Yuliya.”

A personal touch pervades the Biomedical Engineering Department at City College, launched in 2002, with excellence and diversity as its top priorities.

“This department functions as a family,” Weinbaum said. “In a family, you look after the students or graduate students, it doesn’t matter, who need the most help. That’s what a family is.”

The second NIH grant has expired, and the program is winding down. The last seven students, all seniors, are starting their final year without paid tuition and stipends. So far City College’s efforts to find alternative funding have not succeeded.

“I think it’s really sad. It would have been great for others to have the opportunity that I had,” Hudson said. “It was a great help and the main reason why I was able to graduate. It would be wonderful if they can renew their grant or find additional funding.”