Bolstering Access to Engineering Graduate School

11/10/23 Pratt School of Engineering

Duke Engineering’s annual Graduate Program Boot Camp inspires, mentors and empowers aspiring engineers from diverse backgrounds.

Students tour an engineering laboratory at Duke University with professor Andrew-A Jones
Bolstering Access to Engineering Graduate School

Duke Engineering continues to foster inclusive spaces for prospective students to thrive in the world of graduate education with its recent Graduate Program Boot Camp.

Taking place over the course of three days in September, this campus event is sponsored by the NSF Engineering Research Center for Precision Microbiome Engineering (PreMiEr), NSF Athena AI Institute for Edge Computing Leveraging Next Generation Networks and Duke Engineering’s Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Community.

The Graduate Boot Camp’s origins are in Duke’s Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering and was launched as a school-wide initiative in 2017. This fund was designed to support students on financial aid who needed assistance to attend conferences, purchase professional clothing or cover travel expenses related to their academic pursuits. It laid the foundation for the program by offering microgrants to empower students in their educational journey.

We wanted to have a lot of different graduate students be able to give feedback, especially on personal statements and resumes.

Sarah Ruiz Duke PhD student in electrical and computer engineering

Quiana Tyson, assistant director of DEI programs and initiatives, expanded on the fund’s significance, saying, “The Maclin Community Connection Grant Program provided the funding for the creation of the Engineering Graduate Ambassador Program. This program provides peer-to-peer assistance for students applying for graduate school programs. In previous years, participants did receive feedback on their application packages but they did not have the opportunity to speak to current Pratt School of Engineering graduate students on a one-on-one basis about the application process.”

The boot camp program as it exists today has experienced a series of evolutionary phases. Taking the reins nearly two and a half years ago, Tyson, in her capacity as program director, continues to help refine its structure.

“It’s very interdisciplinary,” she explained. “We brought in entrepreneurship professionals to talk about that industry and also covered Duke’s Athena AI Institute and how computer science programs are connecting with more historically Black colleges.”

Claudia Gunsch, director of PreMiEr, has also discussed the research center with participants at past boot camps.

It’s a unique program designed to empower students who are interested in pursuing advanced degrees in engineering and computer science. The overall goal is to equip them with essential skills, insights and support needed to navigate the complex world of graduate school applications and thrive in their academic pursuits.

Luisa Piccolo Serafim, a third-year PhD candidate in the Thomas Lord Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, led a team of graduate students participating in the boot camp. She emphasized the importance of the program’s focus on expanding opportunities for engineering students.

“I saw a very strong interest from the engineering students about Pratt, and not just Duke, but really focusing particularly on Pratt and everything that we can provide them here while they’re in grad school,” she said.

Sarah Ruiz, a fifth-year PhD candidate in Duke ECE shared her journey of getting involved.

“We wanted to have a lot of different graduate students be able to give feedback,” she shared. “Especially on the participant’s personal statements and resumes, as well as having that individual experience for students to be able to talk with a graduate student about what questions they have or what graduate school is like.”

The boot camp not only imparts practical knowledge about the graduate school application process but also addresses common myths and misconceptions, according to Ravi Prakash, a second-year PhD candidate who also presented during the boot camp.

“I was mostly talking about some of the experiences and things that [schools] look into when they see an application, and that’s very helpful because a lot of times we, as applicants, don’t know those things,” he explained. “Sharing that publicly available information with people is helpful, especially for people who don’t know anyone in grad school.”

Participants in Duke Engineering’s Graduate Program Boot Camp discuss best practices for graduate school applications

The program also offers students the chance to explore Duke Engineering’s research labs and provides them with a hands-on experience of the school’s innovative work. Nelanne Bolima, who participated in the boot camp, recalled the visit to a Duke quantum computing lab, saying, “It was captivating hearing from the graduate students about the problems they were attempting to solve. I loved every bit.”

A highlight of the boot camp was the opportunity for students to engage in meaningful conversations with current Duke graduate students, creating an authentic connection between aspiring and established engineers.

Sayre Tillery, a senior undergraduate student, shared, “Engaging in candid and unfiltered conversations with individuals close to my age, who were in positions I aspired to be in, made me feel like I truly belonged at Duke University.”

Besides demystifying the application process, the boot camp also offers personalized feedback on CVs and personal statements, connects students with graduate mentors and exposes them to a wide array of research opportunities. For many, this experience helps overcome imposter syndrome and empowers them to envision themselves as successful students at Duke.

Duke Engineering’s Graduate Program Boot Camp continues to be a space for hope and empowerment for aspiring engineers looking at graduate school. By providing resources, guidance and a supportive community, it ensures that all students have an equal opportunity to excel in the field of engineering and computer science, regardless of their background.

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