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The National Science Foundation Innovations in Graduate Education award to the University of Illinois Chicago will test the translation of evidence-based practices from learning disability communities of teaching self-advocacy to improve the retention and academic success of PhD students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines who come from underrepresented minority backgrounds.

UIC’s program, led by Dr. Carmen Lilley, is called GREATS, which stands for GRaduate Education for Academically Talented Students.

Background and approach

There is a persistent gap in broad participation by underrepresented minority students in STEM PhD programs. Through the GREATS program, we hope to provide these students with integral skill sets and knowledge that will equip them to successfully face ingrained climates of intimidation within STEM professions, and we hope to support their empowerment, agency, and authenticity for academic success and social integration in STEM fields.

The GREATS program has two primary goals, which are intertwined: to add much-needed diversity to academic communities in STEM and to examine how educational practices around self-advocacy can be further translated to other fields.

A comprehensive review of evidence-based practices for teaching self-advocacy in learning disability communities found that there are three critical factors that, when combined, result in increased academic success: empowerment, self-awareness, and social justice.

Self-advocacy has been shown to increase retention at critical transition points in a student’s education and to contribute positively to both participation and academic success in STEM. Thus, the research hypothesis is that teaching self-advocacy will result in improved academic success, improved social integration, and improved health and well-being for STEM graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds at UIC, many of whom are first generation or low-income.

Anticipated contribution

The societal impact of this grant will be a successful graduate education program that is inclusive of underrepresented minority students and that will inform, on a broader scale, how to increase participation of these students in STEM disciplines.

We anticipate that the translation of evidence-based educational practices from learning disability communities will advance the application of these practices to other groups and fields. This work also will provide new scholarship on the factors that affect students’ resilience in the pursuit of STEM PhDs and how supporting their agency, empowerment, and social justice affects their academic success and health/well-being.