Rackham Graduate School and the Kessler Scholars Collaborative are proud to announce a pilot initiative funded by U-M alumni Judy Kessler Wilpon and Fred Wilpon to provide undergraduate research opportunities, professional development, community, and mentorship for 15 Kessler Scholars from campuses across the nation over three years through the University of Michigan’s Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP).
The initiative brings together the values and strengths of both the Kessler Scholars Collaborative and of SROP to ensure that first-generation, limited-income undergraduate students have access to the high-impact experiences, the skills, and the support they need to successfully apply and enroll in graduate school, including Rackham Graduate School at U-M.
Kessler Scholar Xiao Lin Zheng is an undergraduate student in Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, and she participated in the SROP program at U-M during summer 2023.
“The SROP program transformed my academic trajectory and equipped me with the practical skills, resources, and connections necessary to confidently pursue my aspirations in machine learning research and graduate studies,” Zheng says.
“We are so grateful to Judy Kessler Wilpon and Fred Wilpon for this gift on behalf of the Kessler Scholars Collaborative,” says Richard Nunn, SROP senior program lead. “First-generation students thrive when they have the resources, support, and community that Kessler and SROP deliver. Together, we are addressing equity and access in academia and beyond.”
In 2024, 2025, and 2026, the pilot initiative will provide full SROP support for up to five Kessler Scholars from across the Collaborative’s network of higher education institutions each year, supporting a total of 15 students. Through SROP, scholars will receive research opportunities with U-M faculty, summer stipends, travel allowances, housing, programmatic support, networking opportunities, community, mentorship, and academic coaching.
With only 45 students accepted to SROP annually, out of over 350 applicants, the initiative affirms U-M’s commitment to recruiting and retaining students with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences–and to advancing excellence in graduate education. The pilot project also reinforces the importance of engagement with high-impact educational practices, like undergraduate research, which are known to increase retention, engagement, and persistence to graduation, particularly among students who have been historically marginalized in higher education. The Kessler Scholars Collaborative, which this fall will support more than 800 first-generation scholars across 16 colleges and universities, has established that at least 90 percent of students supported by the program will engage in at least one high-impact practical experience as an undergraduate.
“This partnership is a prime example of our work to close equity gaps and support first-generation student success,” shares Shakima M. Clency, national director of campus partnerships and student success for the Kessler Scholars Collaborative.
“SROP offers a unique opportunity to reduce systemic barriers and increase student access to a valuable high-impact educational practice, undergraduate research. Through this transformative experience, Kessler Scholars can continue to build their social networks to include U-M faculty, staff, and fellow scholars across our national network while gaining personal and professional experiences to enhance their preparation for continued success in college and beyond.”
About the Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP)
Now in its 37th year, SROP hosts undergraduate students who are underrepresented in their field of study on the U-M campus for 10 weeks to demystify the graduate school application process and prepare students to make successful transitions into graduate studies.
In addition to working on a research project with U-M faculty and graduate students, SROP participants enjoy professional development workshops and opportunities to build their scholarly networks with peers and with current graduate students. Rising juniors in SROP are assigned coaches in their discipline to build academic plans that optimize students’ remaining time as an undergraduate student and provide scaffolding in preparation for graduate studies.
After the summer ends, rising SROP seniors are invited to get matched with a coach who meets with them weekly for one-on-one graduate school application prep sessions, where students learn how to find the programs that best fit their goals, how to write their personal statement, and more. Mentorship and community connection continues into the winter semester to provide guidance on graduate school interviews, with SROP group sessions happening every month to cover topics such as Graduate School Interviews, Optimizing Graduate School Visit Days, Understanding and Negotiating Funding Packages, and more.
SROP provides deep support for undergraduate students, including the experiences, guidance, professional development opportunities, and community they need to succeed in graduate school acceptance, matriculation, and completion of a master’s or Ph.D. program.
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor students, including Kessler Scholars at U-M, are not eligible for SROP, as they are served instead by U-M’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), as well as SROP-style options available through the Big Ten Academic Alliance. In the spirit of building a national network of scholars, this new initiative is specifically designed to bring together Kessler Scholars from the Collaborative’s other 15 partner campuses at SROP on the U-M campus.
About the Kessler Scholars Collaborative
Founded at the University of Michigan by U-M alumni Judy Kessler Wilpon and Fred Wilpon, the Kessler Scholars Program provides a roadmap for first-generation, limited-income students to thrive across their undergraduate experience and beyond. The program model pairs financial resources with distinctive cohort-based activities and proactive, individualized guidance, all designed to reinforce students’ sense of belonging and elevate their unique strengths. Early results from U-M demonstrate the promise of the program, with the first Kessler Scholars graduating cohort in 2021 attaining a four-year graduation rate of 83 percent—eight percentage points higher than their first-generation peers (75 percent) and at pace with their continuing-generation peers (84 percent). Through spring 2023, the first Kessler Scholars cohort at U-M reached a 94 percent six-year completion rate.
Sixteen colleges and universities now operate Kessler Scholars Programs, all embedded within and supported by the Kessler Scholars Collaborative, a direct initiative of the Judy and Fred Wilpon Family Foundation. The diverse national network of the Kessler Scholars Collaborative allows program leaders to meet regularly to share resources and best practices, participate in coordinated external evaluation, and build opportunities for current Kessler Scholars and alumni to connect with each other across campus boundaries. Support for the Kessler Scholars Collaborative and the expansion of campus-based Kessler Scholars Programs is provided by the Wilpon Family Foundation and by Bloomberg Philanthropies. The Collaborative’s 16 partner campuses include:
- Bates College
- Brown University
- Centre College
- Cornell University
- Johns Hopkins University
- The Ohio State University
- Queens College
- St. Francis College
- Saint Mary’s College (IN)
- Syracuse University
- University of California, Riverside
- University of Dayton
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- University of Pittsburgh
- University of Michigan
- Washington University in St. Louis