RAISE Doctoral Fellows with Vice Provost Stacey Bent (bottom row, center-left), RAISE Director Joanne Tien (bottom row, center), and VPGE staff. (Image credit: Alex Gillaspy)

Across the Stanford community and around the globe, Stanford’s Research, Action, and Impact through Strategic Engagement Doctoral program (RAISE) has broadened connections among researchers and the communities whose lives they aim to improve with their work. The program has also helped doctoral students – in collaboration with their faculty advisors and community partners – to develop new skills. And it has pushed research in new and deeper directions.

“You could have a whole career designing new technologies and never really think about who is going to use your technologies,” said William Tarpeh, assistant professor of chemical engineering. “RAISE helps make sure that the community is involved and considered from the start, not just as an afterthought.”

The RAISE program, which was announced in 2021, is a university-wide fellowship that supports doctoral students across disciplines who want to pursue community-engaged work, either as part of their research or as a separate project. The three-year fellowship provides tuition and stipend, as well as money to be spent on the fellow’s project, which is most often completed in partnership with a community-based organization, or as public scholarship.

“We’ve always known that students who pursue doctoral research are motivated by contributing new knowledge and seeing that the output of their research and scholarship have impact within their scholarly communities,” said Stacey F. Bent, vice provost for graduate education and postdoctoral affairs. “But increasing numbers of students also want their research and scholarship to have practical benefits to their communities, whether that be local, national or global.”

Part of the strength of the program is its interdisciplinary nature.

“One of the main takeaways from this fellowship is that if you want to do community-oriented work, the solutions have to be co-created,” said Samantha P. Bunke, a RAISE fellow and a PhD candidate in chemical engineering. “You can come in with ideas, but you are not there to force your solutions onto a community.”

“You could have a whole career designing new technologies and never really think about who is going to use your technologies. RAISE helps make sure that the community is involved and considered from the start, not just as an afterthought.”

—William Tarpeh

Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering

Creating community connections

The partnerships with community organizations help doctoral students build relationships with and better understand communities – expanding their horizons and supporting them in doing more rigorous research.

Safari Fang, a RAISE fellow and a PhD candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER), discovered this when she began working with Songlin Wang of the Qingdao Marine Conservation Society on research into Chinese fishing communities.

“It takes years to build the kind of relationship where people tell you what they really think and what’s really happening,” said Fang. “Because I work with Songlin, I instantly gained a lot of trust from the communities.”

The program helps students gain insights closer to home, as well. Shalmali Bane, a RAISE fellow and a PhD candidate in epidemiology, initially wanted to study abortion access in a deep red state but ended up working with two nonprofits in central California.

“I was genuinely reluctant to believe that it was a challenging experience to get an abortion in California since it is a sanctuary state,” said Bane. “But people have an incredibly hard time,” Bane comments, where even in a sanctuary state, abortion access can vary in large parts of the state.

A supportive interdisciplinary cohort of researchers

The RAISE program brings together graduate students from across departments who might not otherwise have met each other. Engaging with others in the cohort helps with the challenges of community-focused research, Wallace said.

However, there can be tradeoffs between more traditional academic research and community-engaged research. Luqueño, for example, has heard questions about whether getting close to the families she is studying will bias her research – though it could also make families more likely to give her honest answers.

“We’re having these very honest conversations with people that understand the very hard tension between the academy and community engagement,”  Luqueño said.

The fact that RAISE fellows share their research with students from other disciplines also strengthens their work.

“It forces us to be accessible in the way we present our research,” Wallace said. “We can’t hide behind the jargon that we’re used to using within our own academic circles.”

New skills, deeper research

RAISE fellowships also give participants the time and money to work on projects that have more impact than traditional research.

“Community-engaged research takes so much time, so much labor, so many resources – that’s a barrier to entry for a lot of students,” Park said. “This fellowship supports students to do that labor-intensive work.”

And some RAISE fellows use the fellowship to pursue projects that aren’t directly connected to their dissertation topics. Bane, for example, decided to keep her dissertation separate since she had already started it when she received the fellowship and did not want to slow her progress toward graduation.

“There’s so much value in the RAISE model for learning these community-based principles,” Tarpeh said. “You learn them in the context of your own work, but you learn it better when you see it in 20 examples.”

“We’re having these very honest conversations with people that understand the very hard tension between the academy and community engagement.”

—Leslie Luqueño

RAISE Fellow and PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Education

Pushing participants in new directions

From new grant applications to expanded career paths, the RAISE fellowship has opened up new possibilities for the fellows, the faculty members they work with, and the communities where they engage.

“Some of the strongest supporters of the program are our own RAISE fellows and faculty advisors. They have experienced firsthand the benefit of the support, training, and resources they receive through the fellowship that allows RAISE fellows to pursue their projects and be effective and thoughtful community partners,” Bent said. “We are already seeing a domino effect, within Stanford as well as in the communities where our students are having an impact.”

One example: Bunke is currently working with professors in Kenya on additional grant applications, including one that would create a brand-new research center in the country.

“The RAISE fellowship basically opens the door for you to start engaging closely with different community groups – you have the title behind you, and you have the funds,” Bunke said. “It opens up partnerships that can then ripple out to a bunch of other things.”

And as RAISE fellows finish the program and move on to do research elsewhere, the program’s impact will continue to grow.

“I think I’m still underestimating the future impact,” Tarpeh said. “Soon we will have more senior RAISE scholars, and later we will have RAISE alumni. That seems to be a really beautiful, positive, self-perpetuating cycle.”