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Isaac Serwanga raises his arm while speaking to an audience who are also raising their arms

Inaugural Inclusive Academy Symposium celebrates the ‘genius and joy’ of underrepresented graduate students and postdocs

June 10, 2022, 11:15 a.m.

Isaac Serwanga, an inspirational speaker and author and a member of Princeton’s Class of 2013, leads graduate students and postdocs in a session titled “The Art of Storytelling” at the Graduate School’s inaugural Inclusive Academy Symposium.

At Princeton University’s Graduate School’s first-ever Inclusive Academy Symposium, Courtney DelPo, a Ph.D. student in chemistry, said it was reassuring to hear stories about the many potential paths leading to success as she makes her own way through her doctoral program and beyond.

Renita Miller at the podium

Renita Miller, the Graduate School’s associate dean for access, diversity and inclusion, led the two-day conference, which was attended by more than 100 registrants.

Listening to accomplished speakers who themselves encompassed different types of representation and whose journeys have not always followed a direct path was especially encouraging, DelPo said. “The Inclusive Academy Symposium provided that very necessary reassurance that not only do we belong here, but we are here to succeed and we can find joy in our own experiences,” she said.

The two-day conference, held May 11-12, included panels and workshops focused on supporting Princeton graduate students and post-doctoral scholars from underrepresented backgrounds. More than 100 registrants attended sessions related to academic entrepreneurship, cultivating joy, interviewing, salary negotiations and financial literacy. The program offered the opportunity to strengthen leadership, public speaking, networking and storytelling skills.

As part of the symposium, the Graduate School also named winners of its inaugural Best of Access, Diversity and Inclusion (BADI) Awards. (The list of winners appears below.)

“Too often, the genius, joy, contributions, service and overall awesomeness of folks from underrepresented backgrounds are overlooked, hidden and kept secret,” said Renita Miller, the Graduate School’s associate dean for access, diversity and inclusion. “There is research that even suggests that terms like brilliance and genius are not associated with people of color. The Inclusive Academy Symposium and the BADI Awards are designed to unearth, unhide and celebrate the genius, joy and contributions of this community.” 

a group of students around a table at the IA Symposium

Graduate students enjoy a lighthearted moment during a reception in Chancellor Green Courtyard.

In recent years, the Graduate School’s office of Access, Diversity, and Inclusion has implemented programs to prepare and recruit underrepresented students for postgraduate programs, and then to support those students throughout their studies. These include the Prospective Ph.D. Preview, the Pre-Doctoral Fellowship Initiative, the Graduate Scholars Program and the Diversity Fellows Program.

Miller said the Inclusive Academy Symposium takes a holistic and intersectional approach to graduate student and postdoc professional development. It is designed to educate, inspire and build community among graduate students and postdocs as they are thinking about skills needed for the job market, their own personal development and service.  

In future years, the symposium will be open to graduate students and postdocs from other institutions.

“The lens through which our presenters are speaking and providing advice is through their own experience,” Miller said. “A significant portion of these folks are coming from underrepresented backgrounds. Those are experiences our students can connect to, because oftentimes, they are having those experiences themselves.”

DelPo said a standout session for her was “Negotiating Your Worth: Demystifying the Academic Interview and Negotiations Process,” in which Princeton faculty shared personal experiences of their time on the academic job market, as well as tips for interviewing and for negotiating salary, start date, benefits and the like.

Erin Flowers and Christopher Eisgruber

The symposium included the Graduate School’s first-ever Best of Access, Diversity and Inclusion (BADI) Awards. Erin Flowers (left), a Ph.D. student in astrophysical sciences, received the Pinnacle Award. Princeton’s President Christopher L. Eisgruber (right) received the Leadership Award.

“Too often we are presented with a singular idea of an academic professor as a person who always knew they wanted to pursue this career and had the corresponding confidence to pursue it,” DelPo said. “It was incredibly reassuring to hear from professors who did not have this direct path, but who instead also experienced doubt and imposter syndrome and yet have become very successful in their fields.”

Erin Flowers, a Ph.D. student in astrophysics, said she was inspired to see so many established leaders sharing their journeys.

“As I’m nearing the end of my Ph.D. and considering what comes next, I particularly appreciated being able to speak with Thasunda Brown Duckett and hear her story as one of two Black women who are CEOs at Fortune 500 companies,” Flowers said. Brown Duckett is president and CEO of TIAA, a Fortune 100 company providing retirement and investment services.

“I think that after the symposium, all of us from historically underrepresented backgrounds were just like… wow,” Flowers said. “We could not believe that it would be this phenomenal. We’ve been telling folks who didn’t go about it, and they already are setting reminders to attend next year.”

Flowers — who received the Pinnacle Award at the symposium for her commitment to efforts that support access, diversity, and inclusion (ADI) for the graduate community and beyond — said she also felt the symposium and BADI Awards elevated and legitimized ADI work in graduate studies and as part of the life of the academy.

Thasunda Brown Duckett gesticulates during her talk

Thasunda Brown Duckett, president and CEO of TIAA, was the program’s keynote speaker.

“Sometimes in academia, doing anything outside of your own research is frowned upon,” she explained. “I know there are people in my field who think that if you do ADI work and add it to your resume, it’s a sign that you’re not a great scientist. So I think the symposium really was a sign to students from minoritized backgrounds that Princeton takes this work seriously and takes our genius and joy seriously, as well.”

Isaac Serwanga, an inspirational speaker and author and a member of Princeton’s Class of 2013, led a session titled “The Art of Storytelling,” where participants learned how to unpack the power of their personal story. “It was great to see students engaged and supportive of one another as they shared stories with vulnerability and power,” Serwanga said.

Serwanga said he found the overall program to be inspiring. “The Inclusive Academy Symposium is one of those events that empowers students,” he said. “The exposure to industry leaders from a variety of fields allows students to think creatively about and effectively about their next steps in life.”

Together, the symposium and BADI Awards represented a unique offering for Princeton’s graduate students, Serwanga said.

“I couldn’t be more impressed by the execution of the vision,” he said. “What I enjoyed most was the BADI Award ceremony. It was a strong indication that the Graduate School is not just building a symposium to highlight outside voices; it was a celebration of the individuals who are behind the scenes everyday creating an environment for grad students to thrive.”

BADI Award recipients

a group of BADI Award winners

From left to right: BADI Award winners Krystal Cohen, Guillermo Herrera Nimmagadda, Ryan Sasse and Kat Phan.

Leadership Award
Christopher L. Eisgruber, president, Princeton University

Faculty Champion Award
Joshua Guild, associate professor of history and African American studies

Faculty Champion Award
Jenny Greene, professor of astrophysical sciences, director of the Prison Teaching Initiative

Unsung Hero Award
Laura DeOlden, associate director of graduate student life and diversity, SPIA

Post-Doc Champion Award
Osama Ahmed, associate research scholar, Princeton Neuroscience Institute

a group of BADI Award winners

Vanessa Gonzalez-Perez (second from left), assistant dean for diversity initiatives in the natural sciences, celebrates with BADI Award winners and graduate students. From left to right: Carli Kovel, Hichem Bouchamaoui, Gillian Kopp and Lauren Dreier.

Graduate Student Awards

Pinnacle Award
Erin Flowers, astrophysical sciences

Outstanding Graduate Mentorship
Shelby Sinclair, history

Outstanding Advocacy
Edna Normand, molecular biology

Outstanding G1 Student
Kat Phan, SPIA

Outstanding Divisional Leadership: Humanities
Lindsay Griffiths, English

Outstanding Divisional Leadership: Social Sciences
Joscelyn Garcia, MPA *22, Princeton School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA)

Outstanding Divisional Leadership: Engineering Award
Anjali Premkumar, electrical and computer engineering

Outstanding Divisional Leadership: Natural Sciences Award
Amari Tankard, molecular biology

Outstanding Programming Award Recipients

Women in STEM Leadership Council
Roohi Dalal, astrophysical sciences

Carli Kovel, chemistry
Hichem Bouchamaoui, physics

SPIA Diversity Equity and Inclusion Student Team
Krystal Cohen

Guillermo Herrera Nimmagadda, MPA *22
Ryan Sasse
Avery Barnett
Paco Garcia Bellego 
Rolando Cuevas, MPA *22
Johana De La Cruz
Nivedita Krishna, MPP *22
Nausheen Rajan, MPA *22
Andre Vasilyev, MPA *22

Students of Color and Allies (SOCA)
Rikio Inouye, politics

Derek Wakefield, politics
Hochan "Sonny" Kim, politics
Sonya Chen, politics

People attend the symposium in Cannon Green

Miller conducts a fireside chat in Chancellor Green Rotunda with Brown Duckett, who spoke about her path to becoming one of only two Black female CEOs in the U.S. leading a Fortune 500 company.