Princeton Engineering’s annual program Pathways to Graduate School for Rising College Seniors invites high-achieving students in science, engineering and math for a series of interactive workshops aimed at breaking down barriers and boosting success in applying for doctoral programs.

Launched in 2019, Pathways to Graduate School is an initiative of the engineering school’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which seeks to foster an inclusive culture and increase the diversity of the Princeton Engineering community and the broader engineering profession. Over the past three years, 70 students have participated in the program, and its alumni are now engineering graduate students at institutions including Princeton, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Portrait of student
Victor Zendejas Lopez, who participated in the 2020 virtual Pathways program, is now a first-year Ph.D. student at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Photo courtesy of Victor Zendejas Lopez

“The program was crucial in helping me apply to graduate school and answering questions about whether this was a journey I wanted to pursue,” said Victor Zendejas Lopez, who participated in the 2020 virtual Pathways program and is now a first-year Ph.D. student at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Students from many different backgrounds can succeed in graduate engineering programs, but often face barriers that prevent them from considering or applying to graduate school in the first place — meaning missed opportunities to nurture talent and increase diversity, said Julie Yun, Princeton Engineering’s associate dean for diversity and inclusion.

The Pathways program aims to help students understand the rigors of graduate education, make informed decisions about the possibilities that are open to them, and successfully navigate the graduate application process, said Yun.

A year after completing the Princeton program, Zendejas Lopez joined 2021 participants in an opening Zoom session to share his academic journey and offer advice on the application process. He is a first-generation college graduate who earned a B.S. at the University of California-Berkeley after transferring from Chabot College, a public community college. Internships at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab ignited his passion for computational fluid dynamics and convinced him to pursue a research career in engineering.

The program’s opening half-day session, held in mid-August, also included breakout group conversations that allowed participants to meet Princeton Engineering faculty members and graduate students from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. Yun outlined the application process and timeline, and Princeton graduate students offered insights on deciding where to apply. Six subsequent sessions held throughout the fall included specific guidance for crafting a strong application, and participants scheduled one-on-one meetings with Yun for personalized feedback.

The opportunity to speak directly with administrators and current students has been transformative for numerous participants.

“If I hadn’t just asked a current grad student, I might not have learned that grad school is very much an independent journey — every lab is different and every person’s experience is unique,” said Sophia Yoo, a 2019 Pathways participant who is now a second-year Ph.D. student in Princeton’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“You have to determine what works best for you while communicating with your adviser,” added Yoo, whose graduate work is advised by computer science professor Jennifer Rexford. Yoo is one of three current Princeton graduate students who have participated in the Pathways to Graduate School program.

Yun has also found it’s eye-opening for many students to learn that Ph.D. programs such as Princeton’s do not charge tuition and that students receive a stipend to cover living expenses. She makes a point of dispelling myths about who can be a good candidate for graduate school, as many students with great potential may question whether their undergraduate GPA or test scores are high enough.

“It’s really about whether someone has a passion for research,” she said. “Your [Ph.D.] degree is conferred on the basis of your ability to create new knowledge, so that passion and the ability to persist in the face of challenge are incredibly important.”

As a Pathways participant in fall 2020, Zendejas Lopez said he appreciated the advice to begin his application early — especially his statement of purpose — with the expectation of revising it many times before submitting. He said the program also gave him a valuable confidence boost.

“I think a lot of people get discouraged from applying to grad school — they limit themselves because of one particular aspect where they think they’re not that strong,” he said. “But that particular metric may not matter as much as your willingness to learn and who you are as a person.”

“The program made applying for graduate school less daunting because it broke down the process into bits and pieces,” said Irina Wang, now a second-year graduate student in operations research and financial engineering (ORFE) at Princeton. Wang was encouraged to apply for the program by Princeton graduate alumnus Jamol Pender, one of her professors at Cornell University’s engineering school.

Group photo
Participants in the inaugural Pathways to Graduate School program attended a two-day orientation at Princeton in August 2019. Photo by Frank Wojciechowski

Shambhavi Suryanarayanan is a first-year Ph.D. student in the ORFE department who joined the 2020 virtual program from Chennai, India. She studied mathematics and statistics at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research before deciding to apply to graduate engineering programs.

Suryanarayanan said the program introduced her to graduate students who had made similar shifts in their academic paths, and she got input on how to explain her motivation for the switch in a statement of purpose.

Yun noted that the virtual format has allowed the program to reach international applicants, who would not have been able to travel to Princeton for a two-day in-person orientation, as the program’s inaugural participants did in August 2019. The engineering school’s Diversity and Inclusion Graduate Fellow, Jenna Ott, has also created a series of short videos on considering and applying to engineering graduate school.

“This is our contribution to trying to get as many students into the academy as possible, and supporting them through that journey,” said Yun, who keeps in touch with many of the program’s alumni as they pursue their graduate education. “Talent is everywhere, so we have to be able to identify and nurture that talent wherever it may be.”

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