Bridge to the Faculty program aims to increase opportunities for underrepresented scholars
Sabrin Rizk’s focus is understanding and improving access to educational services for children with autism through medical home primary care. Dieff Vital’s work merges engineering and medicine to come up with smart technology to help treat patients. Marisol Becerra studies the intersection of poverty, race and the environment in brownfield policy in Latino neighborhoods.
What these academics have in common is that they are part of the Bridge to the Faculty Scholars program to increase future faculty diversity at the University of Illinois Chicago. The program, also known as B2F, was created in the summer of 2019 and welcomed the second cohort of scholars at the beginning of the fall 2021 semester. The initiative seeks to enhance diversity by encouraging the recruitment, retention and promotion of scholars from different backgrounds and groups who have been historically underrepresented in academia.
Bridge to the Faculty is coordinated through the Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement. The program is designed to encourage scholars’ research aims to support their success and potential transition to a tenure-track position. Currently, B2F has 34 scholars in its ranks whose research spans a wide variety of disciplines and departments throughout the university.
At a recent in-person reception celebrating the program, UIC Chancellor Michael Amiridis said starting the initiative at UIC with Amalia Pallares, vice chancellor for diversity, equity and engagement, has been one of the most important decisions he has made at UIC and “is really close to my heart.”
“The best way to move an institution forward…is to bring new faculty; new faculty are an investment for decades,” Amiridis said. “What every university in the country is trying to do right now is trying to achieve inclusive excellence, and that’s what this program is bringing us — it is bringing inclusive excellence.”
Pallares said that as she worked to develop B2F, her aim was to create a platform to bring scholars with new perspectives and research that would enhance UIC’s role as an academically rigorous institution and also meet its mission of being an open and diverse institution that is accessible for all. She emphasized the importance of UIC colleges, departments and mentors becoming a community of support for the scholars.
“We want a faculty that is going to be representative of our community,” Pallares said. “My dream is that every student, no matter what department they’re in, is exposed to top underrepresented and diverse faculty. What I love about this program is that we are expanding our horizons.”
According to Angela Walden, director of inclusion initiatives and the Bridge to the Faculty program director, the structure of the program is unique. Departments that are interested in hosting a scholar attend an informational workshop hosted by the Office of Diversity’s B2F team and must apply for a place in the program. The program’s application requires departments to reflect on the needs of the department and how the potential scholar will be supported. Departments must describe how scholarship would be enriched by welcoming a Bridge to the Faculty scholar, what their research and teaching responsibilities would entail, and they must provide a framework for mentoring the scholar and a plan for supporting the scholar’s transition to a faculty position within the department.
Pallares convenes a volunteer committee of senior faculty, many of whom are from underrepresented groups, to review the applications from the departments. Once the awarded departments have been selected and notified, each of these begins the process of engaging in a competitive nationwide search. Walden and others on the Bridge to the Faculty team work with the departments to support the success of their search for a scholar.
“One of the things that we think is very special about this program is that we ask departments to make plans about how they are going to welcome and support their scholar a full year in advance of when the scholar actually arrives on campus,” Walden said.
Once they are hired, the scholars are mentored and supported in their work and research goals, which will benefit students and the university as a whole, Walden said. The program is designed as a two-year position and requires achieving professional milestones each year.
“By increasing the diversity that’s present in our faculty, we’re also increasing the kinds of support that students can receive while they are here,” Walden said.
Among those hopeful scholars is Rizk, who received her doctorate in health sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is in the occupational therapy department in the College of Applied Health Sciences at UIC.
Rizk said the B2F platform will help establish her scientific trajectory that combines scholarly productivity and her commitment to improving service access for children with autism. She aims to “dream a future program of research, sketch my professional horizon and imagine next steps that will shape my research profile.”
Rizk added she hopes to “pave the way for a pipeline of future underrepresented occupational therapy career scientists who realize their own promising potential to make impactful scientific contributions to improve health outcomes for those whom our research will benefit.”
As a Haitian immigrant, Vital’s dream began with tragedy when the devastating 2010 earthquake killed his older brother in the island nation. Having been raised to believe that education was the only path to success, he immigrated to Florida, where he received his doctorate at Florida International University.
He is in the electrical and computer engineering department in the UIC College of Engineering, where his academic focus is textile-based microwave structures for medical applications. He credits the B2F program for offering him and other underrepresented scholars a chance to succeed.
“We are underrepresented in academia, not because we are not up to the standards; it is because we often lack the opportunities,” Vital said.
For Becerra, B2F represents a homecoming. After having grown up in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, she earned her doctorate in environmental social sciences at The Ohio State University. She is in her second year of the B2F program as a postdoctoral research associate in public administration and policy at UIC’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs.
Becerra’s research and civic engagement, which included a White House internship in 2009, covers the under-explored intersection of poverty, race and environment behind brownfield policy decisions from inception to implementation. Having grown up in neighborhoods whose populations paid the price of environmental racism, her focus has been on educating others about the issue.
“UIC is an excellent institution to conduct my research and teach about environmental issues due to the university’s history of strong community-based research and diverse student body,” Becerra said.
At the reception, UIC Provost Javier Reyes shared that when he began his early academic career, he was one of the only Latinos on faculty. Even though he had been recruited, there was a dearth of necessary institutional support at the time. He said Amiridis and Pallares have worked to create a cohort of B2F scholars who not only can give each other support, but who can also expect it campuswide.
“It is something that has resulted in a cohort…a cohort of administrators, faculty and deans who want to support you,” Reyes said. “We have created a new community for the university, a community that is going to support each other and is invested in everyone’s success.”