Advancing Diversity in Graduate Education

GW launches chapter of honors society for outstanding doctoral students and awards an inaugural fellowship.

February 22, 2010

Erin Marie Williams smiling at desk in front of computer

By Jennifer Price

As part of its commitment to promoting diversity at the graduate level, George Washington University has opened a chapter of the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society, a group named after the first African American to earn a doctoral degree. In support of the Bouchet Society's mission, GW has offered a fellowship to Erin Marie Williams, M.A. ’05, a student in the Hominid Paleobiology Doctoral Program in the Department of Anthropology.

The Bouchet Society recognizes outstanding achievement in doctoral education and seeks to develop a network of scholars who exemplify academic and personal excellence, foster environments of support and serve as examples of scholarship, leadership, character, service and advocacy for students who have been traditionally underrepresented in graduate education.

“GW is taking significant steps toward making graduate education and the academic profession available to traditionally underserved populations,” says Tara Wallace, associate dean for graduate studies at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. “We want to increase the number of doctoral students, who will in turn become models for more underserved individuals, and the Bouchet Society provides the mentoring that is crucial for making this happen.”

The society was founded by Yale University and Howard University in 2005 in honor of Edward Alexander Bouchet, who received a Ph.D. in physics from Yale in 1876, marking the first time an African American received a doctoral degree. Since then nine universities have opened chapters.

Each individual college or university inducts students into the honor society every year. GW inducted its first two students last spring: Elizabeth Pittman and Constance Woodard, both of whom are in the English doctoral program. Three more students will be inducted this spring. Inducted students will attend the society’s national conference in March at Yale and will have access to a wide network of mentors, colleagues and peers.

“GW has made a very serious commitment to increasing diversity,” says Dr. Wallace.

Earlier this month, President Steven Knapp announced a new diversity and inclusion initiative, which includes the creation of the position of associate provost for diversity and inclusion and the establishment of a President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion.

Universities can also sponsor their own Bouchet Fellowship program. GW selected Ms. Williams as its first Bouchet fellow earlier this month. Her research examines the connection between human evolution and the development of technology. The earliest known stone tools are from 2.6 million years ago.

The one-year Bouchet Fellowship includes full tuition, salary and a $20,000 stipend.

Ms. Williams first came to GW in 2003 to get her master’s in anthropology, but GW had been on her radar long before then. During her junior year at Grinnell College in 1999, she studied abroad in Zimbabwe and South Africa where she came across research conducted by Alison Brooks, professor of anthropology and international affairs in GW’s Department of Anthropology.

“I knew I wanted to work with Dr. Brooks,” says Ms. Williams. “She knows more about everything than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s amazing.”

In 2005, Ms. Williams entered GW’s Hominid Paleobiology Doctoral Program, which has a 5 percent to 10 percent acceptance rate, according to Dr. Brooks.

“She’s somebody who is a model for students of color. She’s really the leader for all of our students,” says Dr. Brooks, who is now Ms. William’s dissertation director.

As part of her research, Ms. Williams has done field work in Kenya, where she examined some of the earliest stone tools. She’s also conducted research on why early humans were physically able to shape stone tools while other species could not and what changes have occurred in humans’ hands, wrists and arms that have made stone tool production more efficient.

“Stone tools are the earliest evidence we have of human culture, and it’s a tangible piece of evidence. It’s something you can hold on to and look at,” she says. “Stone tools are a big part of what led us on the road to being human. You could gain access to a wider variety of food sources. I think it allowed us to enhance our behavior. The difference between digging a hole in the ground with your hand and digging with a digging stick is incredible. You can do it so much faster and so much more efficiently.”

Ms. Williams applied for the Bouchet Fellowship because she wanted to have the opportunity to interact with other African American Ph.D. students and find African American academic mentors.

“Anthropology is not a very diverse field so I don’t work with a very ethnically diverse group of people. I have a lot of good mentors, both academically and personally, but I don’t have a lot of mentors that are black scholars,” says Ms Williams. “But the Bouchet Society will give me an opportunity to interact with more African Americans.”

Ms. Williams says she is grateful GW opened a chapter of the Bouchet Society and created the Bouchet Fellowship because it helps support African American graduate students.

“If you have a diverse population on campus, you learn so much more. You become more comfortable with a wider variety of people. You learn to live in the world that actually exists, and hopefully you learn to appreciate the differences that exist, not just tolerate them,” says Ms. Williams. “Anything that GW can do to help its population do that is wonderful.”