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SPA Hosts First Annual Summer Diversity Academy

Initiative looks to support the research and careers of underrepresented doctoral students and junior faculty.

The AU School of Public Affairs (SPA) recently hosted scholars from across the country for its inaugural Summer Diversity Academy, designed to train, mentor, and promote young professionals from underrepresented backgrounds seeking careers in public administration and policy. Students of color face barriers entering the profession, and studies suggest a need for better representation on campuses: while almost 45% of surveyed college students identify as nonwhite, they are served by 76% white faculty.

Six doctoral students and junior faculty were selected from a pool of 60 applicants for the June 6-10 program, in which participants received feedback on their research, guidance on launching their careers, and the chance to meet colleagues in the field.

“It seemed like great preparation to learn what it takes to be a successful professor and how to do high quality research,” said Lauren Forbes, who just finished her PhD in public policy from Georgia State University and will start as an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati in the fall. “I have a clearer idea about what my next projects are going to be, and how to approach them. I feel like this academy helped me to develop a greater level of professional confidence.”

SPA Distinguished Scholar in Residence Kenneth Meier said he developed the pilot program to fill the gap in knowledge between what students learn in the classroom and what it takes to be successful in the profession. The sessions provided practical tips on the job market, publication strategies, developing a social media presence, writing grants, and the tenure process. New professors were invited to share their experience entering the field, as well as professionals who applied their advanced degrees as practitioners in the in the nonprofit and public sectors.

“This is an opportunity to work with some mentors and peers, get introduced to aspects of the profession that are valuable, and establish a network,” Meier said. “One of the advantages of bringing them here to the School of Public Affairs is we've got the people whose work they're reading. That's an advantage, to be able to talk with somebody who works in the same field and has had a lot of experience.”

As Stephanie Puello wraps up her PhD at the University of Colorado-Denver next year, she said she was eager to be in community with other underrepresented students who might share the same lens on research agendas related to social and racial equity.

“We learned so much about how to navigate the academy, how to land a job, about what being an academic looks like, and what we should do to prepare ourselves for success,” Puello says. “I feel much better equipped. Much of this information in academia tends to be obscured. But the Academy has made things seem more transparent. It provided us with instruction about how to navigate these spaces that tend to be exclusive and hard to enter, especially as a first gen student.”

William T. Jackson said that participating in the summer program helped him affirm his decision to move into academia, following over a dozen years of work in the nonprofit sector. After completing his PhD at Florida International University in August, he will be starting a position as a postdoctoral fellow in SPA this fall.

“Being here has motivated me and encouraged me more to do this type of work--and see the possibilities,” said Jackson, whose research agenda examines inequities among social groups when focusing on policing and the juvenile justice system. “I have the opportunity to be creative, innovative, and productive within my research.”

Jackson said he is looking forward to seeing how the academy grows and is able to impact others like him in the field.

Next year, Meier hopes to double the number of participants in the SPA academy; he and SPA Dean Vicky Wilkins believe the program could serve as a model for other institutions.

“The Summer Diversity Academy takes a proactive and innovative approach to making our field more inclusive and representative,” said Wilkins. “SPA is proud to host and support the pilot and future activities. The guidance, collaboration, and mentorship provided by the program are essential to addressing the barriers that still exist for faculty of color in the academy. Diversity and inclusion are core to our excellence as an institution." 

SPA will open applications for the 2023 Summer Diversity Academy in January. For more information, visit the website or contact Dr. Meier at