When Marlette Jackson looks back at the constellation of mentors who encouraged her to pursue a doctorate in political science, she is grateful for the diverse group of women and men – faculty, students and staff – who took her under their wing throughout the journey.

Marlette Jackson portrait

Marlette Jackson, who recently earned a doctorate in political science, says mentorship and financial support from the university’s EDGE and DARE fellowships supporting diversity in academia helped her succeed. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

It was a journey that began at Texas A&M University, where the first-generation college student earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, with a minor in Africana studies, and culminated at Stanford, where she recently received a doctorate.

Her coterie of Texas mentors included five African American doctoral students who gave her advice on matters practical — what to wear to her first conference presentation — as well as academic, including her decision to join the graduate program in political science at Stanford.

Jackson, who arrived at Stanford in summer 2012, quickly found mentors through a fellowship she received that is designed to help incoming students from diverse backgrounds succeed in academia – Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education Doctoral Fellowship (EDGE).

EDGE fellowships include a stipend that Jackson could, in part, put to immediate use when her aging car broke down during the 1,700-mile drive to the Farm from her home in Fort Worth, Texas.

The fellowship “demonstrated that Stanford understood that individuals from diverse backgrounds might need other kinds of support and resources,” Jackson said. “It also showed me – right out of the gate – that Stanford valued the diversity I would bring to the university.”

Jackson described the fellowship as the “icing on the cake” of joining the Stanford PhD program in political science, which provides five years of financial support for students.

Life as an EDGE Fellow

During EDGE panel discussions, Marlette listened as advanced graduate students offered practical advice on matters critical to academic success, such as how to establish good relationships with advisers, as well as emotional issues related to being the first member of a low-income family to attain a high level of academic achievement.

“It can be difficult navigating the conversation with family and friends when you’re coming into a certain level of privilege, by virtue of being able to get a PhD from Stanford for free,” she said. “That might create a certain barrier or difference in the relationships with your community back home.”

As an EDGE Fellow, Jackson won a grant for fieldwork in Africa, the first of several travel grants Stanford awarded her for research in Ethiopia and Kenya.

Under the program, she was assigned mentors – a third-year graduate student and an EDGE faculty adviser.

During her third year as a doctoral candidate, Jackson became an EDGE mentor herself, joining a community of about 100 doctoral students who guide incoming EDGE Fellows in any given year.

“EDGE ushered me into the academy,” she said. “I wanted to pay it forward by helping other women of color navigate the mechanics of academia and helping them find what space in the academy best aligned with their interests and skill sets,” Jackson said.

“For many women of color, requirements for success at the university level are opaque, so I envisioned myself as a conduit through which they could gain the insight, skills and training necessary not only to better understand the academic process, but to relay that information to others as they continue their journey.”

In its early years, the fellowship, a program of the National Science Foundation, supported underrepresented minority graduate students in only a handful of social science fields.

When the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education (VPGE) at Stanford took over leadership of the EDGE program in 2013, the university scaled up the program dramatically to recruit incoming doctoral students in five of Stanford’s seven schools – Business, Earth, Education, Engineering, and Humanities & Sciences.

Stanford also expanded the conception of “diversity” to be broadly defined in the context of each academic field.

To date, the university has awarded 530 EDGE Fellowships to graduate students, including incoming doctoral students who will join the Stanford community in the fall.

“EDGE, along with our Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence Doctoral Fellowship (DARE), are two of our most innovative programs that support graduate students to become mentors and leaders in their chosen fields,” said Patricia J. Gumport, vice provost for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs, and a professor of education.

“Our aim is for their impact to be transformational across academic generations, so that higher education becomes truly diverse, inclusive and equitable.”

Reaching out to high schoolers

As a PhD student, Jackson co-founded Challenge Accepted, a two-year project of Stanford’s Black Graduate Student Association that introduced local African American high school students to the world of graduate education. (The project was funded by VPGE’s Diversity Inclusion and Innovation Fund.)

“All of the instructors and mentors were black graduate students studying bioscience, business, engineering, humanities, law and social science,” Jackson said. “So the high school students, who came to campus for six consecutive Saturdays, met people who looked like them and who came from similar backgrounds and who told them, ‘You can do this too.’”

Choosing a career path in academia

In 2016, Jackson won another Stanford fellowship – the Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence Doctoral Fellowship (DARE).

The fellowship provides two years of support to doctoral students who want to investigate and prepare for academic careers, and whose presence will diversify academia. Since VPGE established DARE in 2008, Stanford has awarded 210 fellowships to graduate students.

Jackson said the program provided a sense of community among a group of people who were all at the same critical juncture in their doctoral programs.

“It also provided a sense of intellectual vitality and rigor and challenge,” she said.

In addition to the 22 fellow graduate students who composed her cohort, Jackson said she benefited from the expertise and leadership of the VPGE staff, including Anika Green, assistant vice provost and director of the DARE Fellowship program.

“DARE seeks to increase the knowledge, skills and confidence of each of our fellows as they prepare for academic careers, and to thrive once there,” Green said.

“As a community, they learn from one another about their own broad spectrums of diversity and how to be better advocates and allies across those dimensions. DARE alumni are making an impact in academia and other industries in ways that we envisioned when the program began 10 years ago.”

In the end, Jackson’s journey led straight back to the Farm, where she recently became the assistant director for diversity and inclusion in the School of Engineering.

“As a first-generation student from a low-income background, and as a black woman, I am motivated by a sense of duty to help create equity in the academy for individuals who come from diverse backgrounds,” Jackson said.

“It feels like a natural progression for me to go from knocking on doors to find people who could envision me in the academy to opening my door to anyone who wants to create equity for diverse students in a meaningful, impactful and sustainable way.”