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Home » Discover Rackham » Bridges to the Doctorate: Support from Two Alums Opens Doors for Underrepresented Students

What happens when two dedicated alumni, a dean committed to expanding graduate access to marginalized populations, and three of those students enter a conference room? It may sound like the beginning of a joke, but that can’t be farther from the truth. An amazing and inspiring conversation unfolded.

Enter Two Alumni

Tom and Kate Kush didn't have the best experience in grad school. It was stressful because the job market for English literature faculty eroded more each year and academic careers seemed unattainable. They had loved their years at U-M as undergraduates, and they wanted to keep learning, reading, researching and, in truth, putting off major life decisions for a few more years. Tom admits something many of us can identify with: “I loved spending time in the graduate library, prowling the stacks and getting distracted from the reading I should have been doing.” Kate recalls, “We were young, married, poor, and without a clear future, but the time spent reading more great books was a powerful draw.”

It was a dismal landscape for many grad students at the time. Kate explains, “It was an odd dynamic working closely with faculty who didn’t know how to cope with students who would never be colleagues in the profession. Nobody could advise us what to do.” Fortunately a friend in linguistics advised Tom to take a programming course while he wrote his dissertation. That ended up being career-changing advice.

“We moved to Boston with a baby, a dog, and no jobs,” Kate says. But Tom was armed with a programming course and a survival instinct ingrained from a childhood ripe with hard times. Within a month he had a job as a technical writer in the burgeoning tech industry. Kate ultimately landed a job writing for a clinical psychologist at Harvard, helping translate human psychology to the business world. The Kushs learned that Boston was home to many businesses started by very smart and highly educated people. Those businesses valued the Kushs’ educational experiences. It turned out that completing big projects, interacting with senior faculty, learning new things, and writing clearly about any subject became stepping stones to the worlds of technology and marketing where the Kushs made their careers.

Coming Back to Michigan

Tom and Kate had been annual donors to a scholarship fund at U-M and reconnected with Rackham over coffee with Jill McDonough, Rackham’s Director of Development. They were open to supporting graduate education, but acknowledged the hard road they had in grad school. They expressed an interest in supporting scholarship students (Tom wouldn’t have been at U-M without the financial support he was given) and STEM fields (key to improving lives and creating economic opportunities). Their own experiences led them to ask probing questions about the role and purpose of graduate programs. Jill answered all their questions, and Kate says, “We came to understand you can’t have the quality of the undergraduate programs we enjoyed without a stellar graduate school. That understanding put everything in a new light.”

Jill shared with the Kushs a program to support graduate students that was right up their alley: the Bridges to the Doctorate offers Master’s students in STEM fields programmatic support to help them enter and succeed in doctoral programs. The Kushs especially appreciated that Bridges is designed to increase diversity in the broadest sense of the word. It supports students from underrepresented groups who might otherwise not have an opportunity to come to a top-ranked school like Michigan.

Tom says, “Giving to Bridges is a way to do something that makes a visible difference. I can’t give $100 million, but I can give enough to affect one student every year. I get so much pleasure from meeting these students and seeing that I can make an immediate impact. The work they are doing and the ways they are succeeding is impressive and inspiring.”

Kate adds, “Rackham and the University have really changed. I watched a presentation a few years ago where a female faculty member described leading groups of students on research trips to Africa and implementing life-saving technology that adapts to local needs. Even years afterwards, I’m struck with the power of U-M women in science making such a difference, not to mention the power of that real-world educational experience.”

The Kushs came to campus recently to meet the students they fund. This year, even former students came to greet them, giving the Kushs a chance to catch up with the experiences of students at very different points in their graduate school careers. Kate and Tom wouldn’t miss this meeting, and neither would the students they support. Kate says, “The experience of these students is so inspiring. They are succeeding beyond their early dreams because they’ve been given an opportunity.” Tom adds, “To be able to come back in this little way, it’s like connecting with the future.”

Add a Dean

And the future looks bright. Rackham dean Carol Fierke describes the Bridges to the Doctorate program (Bridges) as an important vehicle to support students who are often marginalized in pursuing advanced degrees.

She explains, “Bridges supports students who want to pursue a graduate education but who likely otherwise would not have the opportunity to do so due to a variety of social or structural barriers. In addition to demonstrating academic accomplishment and potential, many of the students who receive Bridges funding have had an unusual educational experience, language proficiency, or cultural background that helps us recruit a diverse group of students to this program. This diversity contributes to the intellectual and cultural richness of their program community, particularly in light of Michigan’s limitations after Proposition 2 was enacted in 2006 to ban affirmative action. While we can’t recruit underrepresented students based race or gender, we can recruit students that have shown grit and resilience in the face of significant obstacles and that have a commitment to increasing diversity in their academic or professional work.”

In reality, 60% of the Bridges students are underrepresented racial/ethnic minority students, and the other 40% are students from underrepresented populations of other kinds: they tend to be female, students who worked 40 hours during college, first generation college students, community college students, and students from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds. And, all of the Bridges students have demonstrated the academic, motivation, persistence, and leadership characteristics necessary for growth and success in rigorous graduate study.

There are 12-15 Bridges students in a given year, a number that will grow over time as the program expands. Dean Fierke says, “We are adding Bridges students in engineering, and we hope to add social sciences, the business school, and the humanities. The program has been succeeding, and faculty are on board more than ever. Although the program is not large, it can make significant and broad impact. If we are able to graduate 20 new underrepresented minority Ph.D. students in engineering each year, for example, we would make a big difference in representation in that field. In some of the math and science disciplines, graduating 3-5 new Ph.D. students from underrepresented backgrounds each year would make a national impact. People are starting to see this as an interesting program and an innovative mechanism for enhancing the diversity and excellence of our doctoral programs.”

Dean Fierke continues, “We are committed to the Bridges to the Doctorate as a means of identifying and supporting the best and the brightest students that add to diversity. Through the program, we have developed a profound view of what it means to achieve diversity.”

And Some Bridges

Mallory Fuhst, Ph.D. student in Applied Physics is supported by Bridges funding from the Kushs. She comments, “I'm very thankful to be part of the Bridges to the Doctorate program. The funding especially gave me the security to take my time when selecting a research group, and choosing the right advisor and project has enabled me to be as successful as I have.”

The icing on the cake is the chance to build relationships with alumni who care. Mallory says, “It’s always wonderful to see the Kushs. Not only do they give generously, but they are genuinely interested in the students they help to fund. As I don't know many non-professors who went through a graduate program, it’s very rewarding to interact with someone who, like the Kushs, can understand the trials and triumphs of pursuing a graduate degree and who are willing to share their experience and perspective.”

All of this means the Kushs are able to fulfill their philanthropic goals to a greater extent than they ever imagined, engaging with the university through their passion for women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields and scholarships so students have access to an affordable education. Kate says, “One of the other things I really enjoy when I come back is having these conversations where I get the sense of the organizational complexity. We are so glad to come back to these meetings and to meet so many amazing graduate students; it is just jaw dropping.”