Monthly Archives: November 2008

It’s Ph.D. Application Time: Here are a Few Tips

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

It’s that time of the academic year — the time when students begin to ask for advice, and more importantly, letters of recommendations to pursue their Ph.D. research.  As I care greatly about the future of the professoriate (and I think being a professor is the last great job — one gets paid to think!), I am willing to talk with anyone interested in pursuing a Ph.D. and I typically offer the same advice year after year.  In the spirit of the season, I thought I would provide that advice here on my Diverse Issues in Higher Education Blog.

First, the best approach is to do well academically at both the undergraduate and graduate level.  Take learning seriously and capitalize on each and every opportunity you have in college.  If you didn’t do as well as you would have liked to, it’s important to communicate the reasons to the graduate admissions committee.

Second, write the best, most focused, personal statement that you can.  Make sure to have a specific purpose to the statement, with clearly outlined goals and interests.  The admissions committee needs to know why you want to pursue a Ph.D. and why in the specific academic area of your choice.  Moreover, they need to understand why you are interested in pursuing the degree at their particular institution.  In the statement, you need to make connections to the research interests of those on the faculty.  However, your connections should be genuine — don’t name drop or exaggerate your interest in faculty.  Link your work with one or two individuals and write a meaningful paragraph about the connections between your interests and the faculty members’ work.  Don’t use cliches and quotes that have been used for decades — be as original in your thinking and approach as you can. 

Third, acquire three very strong letters of support from faculty members.  Make sure that these individuals know you and that you did well in their classes.  When asking someone to write a letter of recommendation for you, say “Are you willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for me?”  Graduate admissions committees are looking for evidence in the letters that you will be successful in the research and writing process and that you have strong critical thinking and analytical skills. 

Fourth, if at all possible, arrange to visit the institution and program to which you are applying.  Meet with students and faculty, attend a class or several, and get a good feel for the institutional culture.  Ask yourself, “Do students appear happy and busy?”  “Do students have dedicated workspaces at which to pursue their research and perform the work related to their research assistantship?”  “Are faculty visible and available?”  “Are faculty and students collaborating on research projects?”  Although you will be able to make a better assessment of a Ph.D. program by visiting, the faculty members will also get a better sense of you — and you are more likely to rise to the top of the application pile if you made a positive impression during your visit (of course, a negative impression could have the opposite effect!).

Fifth, if you are a student of color or someone interested in studying issues related to race, class, gender, or sexuality, make sure that there are faculty members who have your best interest in mind and who can relate to and inform your perspective.  Read faculty members’ research, notice which organizations they participate in and on which committees they serve, and if syllabi are available, see if your perspective is represented in course readings and assignments.

Lastly, do not apply to one one program.  I see students make this mistake year after year.  Identify the strong programs that appeal to your interests and apply to all of them, making sure to tailor your personal statement to each program’s focus.  Ph.D. programs are intensely competitive, especially those that offer full funding for multiple years — keep your options open.

Good luck!


An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).

History in Their Own Words

On account of jury duty all last week, I was not able to be on campus at Lincoln the day after the election. I was looking forward to hearing about my students’ experiences of standing in line for hours upon hours, finally voting for the first time, celebrating wildly by climbing all over the Frederick Douglass statue on campus, and being part of this historic election. When I finally returned to campus, I asked my students to put history in their own words and recount what they were feeling and thinking that day so I could share them in this space. Their narratives speak of joy, empowerment, fear, and hope for change:


The Atlantic bottom trembled with my ancestors chains when change came to America. I think Martin Luther King Jr. shed a tear with Jesse Jackson. Dorothy Dandridge sang with Billie Holiday “Freedom is coming tomorrow,” and Louis played his horn. I cried and celebrated. We made the change, and my grandmother’s life ran through me. November 4, 2008 was a proud moment for some, and others looked at it like a tragedy, but the majority of people wanted something different in the United States. This proud moment was not only an accomplishment for African-Americans, it was a slap in the face to white domination. I am proud to say that the White House was made multicultural on so many levels, and I will never forget the day when I looked at someone that resembled me in the white house. –Amelia Sherwood


Before the announcement was made that Obama won the presidential election, a wave of emotion was causing me to think and reflect on how long I was waiting in line to vote. The six hour wait and the harsh cold circled my mind like a slow carnival ride. I could not stop asking myself the question, “did my vote really count?” I glanced at my phone and started to watch television to see which candidate was leading. I shut my eyes and took a deep breath; just as I opened my eyes a huge roar emerged from outside. I swiftly turned to the television and noticed Barack Obama won. At that moment my heart began to beat faster and my body felt weak. The feeling of empowerment, self-worth, and confidence built within me to the point it released a single teardrop. The teardrop was bigger than Obama himself. It was about to change. –Carlton Wilhoit


When I found out that “my president is black,” I became overwhelmed with joy, but at the same time a little scared. There had been a lot of threats that I’ve heard about towards Barack Obama and I was also scared for his family. Even to this day, people are still racist and prejudiced and are very disappointed about the election. I was happy as well when I heard the news because I am an African American/Antiguan and I know my ancestors struggle and how hard they worked for “us” to be able to vote and now that we can, we have a black president! I wish they were here to witness this because it shows that “we” can do ANYTHING!! Some people stood in line for hours at a time; that showed how much the election meant to them. It’s time for a change, and I hope Obama is the one to make it happen. –Sade Dorsett


When I watched the election, it felt bigger than any other championship sport event I’ve ever watched. The excitement and hope I felt was amazing when watching this presidential race. At the time, I couldn’t even fathom the thought of a black president in the oval office. It just seemed unreal for a moment, then bang!!! Around 11:00PM, it was announced that president Barack Obama is the new president of the United States of America. I immediately flashed to all the problems blacks had making it in this world and how we finally have a man of color in the oval office. As a black man in America, I felt a sense of pride and spirit uplifting when we made history that amazing day. –Julian Rogers Lindsay

Congratulations Brother President! Congratulations Mr.President!

elwood-watsonBy Elwood Watson

Think about the following:

· 1789 – The U. S Constitution declares that Black Americans were only three-fifths of a human being.

· 1857 Dred Scott decision was handed down by the Supreme Court

· 1896 – The separate but equal doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

· 1954- The Supreme Court supports the idea of educational equality in Brown v. Board of Education.

· 1964 – President Lyndon Johnson signs into law the Civil Rights Bill that was approved by congress.

· 1965 – President Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act on August 6th.

· 1989 – Douglas Wilder of Virginia becomes the first African-American elected governor of a state in modern times.

· 2008 Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is elected president of the United States of America.

As I tuned in to watch the election returns on the evening of November 4th, I watched with great anticipation the possibility that American history would forever be changed. Throughout the night I called my siblings as well as friends all over the nation. All of us hoping and many of us praying that we would see a new day in American politics where the most powerful political office in the world which had been occupied by 43 White men would finally be shattered. Fortunately, our prayers were answered! While there have been allegations that several of our presidents have had Black ancestry, most notably Warren G. Harding, such information has largely been obscured to the margins of history.

It is virtually impossible to state in one word what the election of Barack Obama as America’s 44th president signifies. This is a nation where Blacks were brought to the shores of Jamestown as slaves and stripped of their native religion, culture and human dignity. Many of our people were perennially lashed down by centuries of cruel and inhumane treatment – Black codes, Jim Crow, legal segregation, poll taxes, oppressive sharecropping systems, lynchings, racial profiling etc … Segregated schools were legal until 1954. Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, political and economic apartheid was the law of the land in the South. During the past 40 plus years a more sophisticated and subtle form of racism and racial discrimination has plagued our nation.

No one can deny that President–elect Obama ran a first-rate campaign. He was savvy in his use of the Internet, blogs, and other tools that are a mainstay in the lives of many Americans, especially those under 30. In fact, it was with this group of voters – the millennial generation that Obama made an indelible impact upon. They are young, idealistic, deeply rooted in the idea of multiculturalism, extremely ethnically diverse (a number of them are biracial and multiracial), much more accepting of interracial dating, friendships and marriages, and imperviously immersed in technology. This is a group that saw themselves in Obama. To see racially diverse groups of college students hugging, screaming and cheering alongside one another would have made Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., proud. Indeed, he (Obama), personifies the very factors that they (the under 30 crowd) represent. Observing elderly Black people who were fortunate to live long enough to witness such a historical moment as they beamed with pride brought tears to my eyes.

Indeed, polls demonstrated that Obama did well among the majority of all voting groups including White blue-collar workers. This was a demographic where he was not expected to do so. It was a fact that surprised many pundits and other nay-sayers. While he did not receive the majority of White votes, it is apparent that a considerable number of them rejected the paranoid rhetoric of Joe the plumber, the conspiracy theorists and the “Obama is a Muslim/Arab” crowd. They knew their personal economic situation, the current financial condition of the country and realized that something needed to change. These were among the Americans who were dancing in the streets, singing hallelujah in churches and toasting glasses with one another in bars along with other Americans.

Reading various right wing Web sites and listening to several conservative talk radio programs, it is apparent that not everyone was pleased about an Obama victory. Some incensed White callers have been decrying the fact that “those people” (The Obama’s) will be moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and assuming the title of first family. Such a reality irritates the far right to no end. Some segments of the fringe left who feel that Obama is “not radical enough” are less than content as well.

However, I am sure that I speak for millions of Americans, especially many African-Americans, when I say that the majority of us are thrilled beyond our wildest dreams that a handsome, intelligent, dashing Black man along with his elegant, beautiful wife and adorable daughters will be one of the most important and talked about families in the world. They will soon be the nation’s first family. I went to bed that night thanking God for what had just transpired. Another historical barrier had been shattered. Barack Obama is indeed a phenomenon. Congratulations brother president! Congratulations Mr. President!

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)

America Is Saying ‘Yes We Can’ Because of President-elect Barack Obama

Six years ago many of us could not really say with any authority that we had heard of Barack Obama. Our first real glimpse of him came as he delivered a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention held four years ago. After hearing him speak that evening at the convention, I knew that he was someone destined for something great as he captured America’s attention. So approximately two years ago, Barack Obama now a U.S. senator from Illinois announced that he would be running to be president of the United States of America. Many Americans said Barack who? Barack Obama was not a familiar name on the political landscape so the wonderment about whom he was and his politics was to be expected. We should have known something was about to happen when Barack Obama won the Iowa caucus even though he was not favored to win. His campaign used the momentum from the Iowa victory and launched a drive never before seen in American history. Obama certainly had the 3 c’s well in hand as he was competent, compassionate and committed.

Barack Obama used the word “hope” and the phrase “yes we can” throughout his quest to be president of the United States of America. There were enough people who criticized him saying that the word hope had no meaning and was a fluff word. If ever his critics made an error in judgment and calculation it was when they discounted “hope.” You see Americans have always been a hopeful people. Each day that we wake up we are hoping for a god day. When our children tell us what they want to do with their lives, we see the hopeful look in their eyes. When we are up and things are going our way, we are in a hopeful and joyful mood. And even when we are down, we are hoping that things will turn around. Those who don’t believe in hope are usually pretty miserable and negative people.Yes we can’ is just as important because it suggests a can do attitude and spirit. As time went on, Barack Obama was giving people around the country hope for a brighter tomorrow.

I have said on many occasions that the other candidates had campaigns but Barack Obama had a movement. There was a wind that blew across this country which was filled with the air of expectancy and favor. It suggested that while we might have been off course that we were ready to get back on course. This spirit of togetherness that Obama started was inclusive and placed value on each individual regardless of race and gender. All of us were made to feel like we had a seat at the head table and that we could be the shapers of our future. If you had any doubts all you had to do was to look at his audiences. There were people there from different walks of life and socioeconomic status. Teachers were standing next to builders and young folks were seated next to businessmen and businesswomen. Yet even as this powerful force called change was sweeping across America there were those who derided Barack Obama for being too articulate, too clean cut and too professional. And of course for some the three-hundred-pound elephant sitting on the table was his race. So you couple his ability to communicate, his consummate cool and his race all of which was for some Americans just too much to handle. I find the fact that some folks were critical of his oratorical skills almost laughable. Would they have been more comfortable with him babbling or just maybe that would have fit into the stereotype that they have about black men. Despite this challenge, and a few others, the Obama movement has prevailed.

Baby boomers like me can remember where we were exactly when certain life changing events happened. It was no different on Tuesday night as I was glued in front of the television. As the election returns came in my nervousness increased. At just a few seconds at 11p.m. breaking news on CNN declared Barack Obama to be president-elect of the United States of America. My eyes were moist as I thought about going to school in the segregated South and not being able to eat in certain restaurants simply because I was Black. And now here is an African-American who will hold the most powerful position in the world. Yet Barack Obama never used his race to make his case. He talked about the issues of the day and those issues resonated with the American people. Early Wednesday morning Barack Obama had garnered over 330 electoral votes more than the 270 needed to win. During his many speeches, Barack Obama always said that the election was about us and not about him. It is my thinking that with his victory that Americans have reclaimed America. Never before did so many people make it to the polls both on November 4th and through early voting. For example early voting was never in play until this year’s election. The same is true for giving financial contributions through the Internet. These strategies can all be attributed to Barack Obama. The fact that Barack Obama will be the 44th president is almost too surreal for me yet it is true. In my heart I believe that ‘yes we can’ become one America again. President-elect Obama reminds us that we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. And yes we are. I feel now that hope is alive and help is on the way.

Dr. Ewers is the associate dean for student affairs and director of community partnerships at Miami University Middletown in Ohio. He is the author of Perspectives From Where I Sit: Essays on Education, Parenting and Teen Issues.

When It Comes to HBCU Alumni and Giving, Making Them “Feel Bad” Doesn’t Work

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

In a recent article in Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Bill Cosby was reported to have chastised HBCU leaders for their failures to attract alumni contributions. Specifically, he stated, that HBCU administrators should make their alumni “feel bad” about not giving back. I have a lot of respect for Cosby’s dedication to HBCUs and I agree that HBCUs need to be more proactive in garnering alumni support. However, shaming alumni or making them “feel bad” does not work. Research shows that the best way to increase alumni giving across institutional type is to educate alumni while they are students about the importance of giving back.

Beginning during new student orientation, the presidents of HBCUs need to remind students on whose shoulders they stand. As the majority of HBCU students receive scholarships, it is easy to convince them that they are benefiting from the contributions of others and have an obligation to do the same for students of the future. The trick communicate this message early and often. HBCUs need to make sure that students understand how a college or university works, the sources of income that keep an institution working, and their role in sustaining their alma mater.

How can this be done? HBCUs need to set up student advancement councils focused on raising money and educating about philanthropy in a peer to peer way. The United Negro College Fund has been doing this for decades through their campus-based pre-alumni councils. BUT presidents and other administrators need to better communicate the “giving back” message through multiple means. And, presidents have ample opportunity to do this — at homecoming, at weekly convocations, at social and academic events, and of course, at graduation. Student should know from the moment that they step on campus that as soon as they receive their diploma, they need to give back to the institution that launched them into society.

Education and a true understanding of the worth and benefits of an HBCU education leads people to give, not shame!

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).