Building a Network of Support for Undergraduate Students of Color Interested in REEES

by Amarilis Lugo de Fabritz (Howard U), Colleen Lucey (U of Arizona), Krista Goff (U of Miami), Kelly Knickmeier Cummings (Howard U)

This first appeared in the March 2021 issue of NewsNet.

I. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion...Where to Start? - Amarilis Lugo de Fabritz
In my 25 years in the field – including my undergraduate years – I have only met two other Puerto Ricans with advanced degrees in any area of Slavic Studies. They specialized in history and social sciences, however. This – and I would like to be proven wrong – makes me the oldest Puerto Rican currently employed in the field of Russian language and literature. I share this experience with a lot of scholars of color in my generation. We have become quite used to always being the only one of our population at any domestic or international conference.

At the 2018 ASEEES convention, I noticed that I was not alone in wanting to find fellow colleagues devoted to diversity, equity, and inclusion. I met Nicholas Detsch, from the U.S. Russia Foundation, who told me that the Foundation wanted to support projects expanding Russian Studies among undergraduates. I also met Colleen Lucey from U of Arizona. She told me about her classroom in Tucson where a diverse group of students were taking Russian. After some deep thought, I decided I wanted to bring these UA and Howard undergraduates together to explore the different opportunities they could have in the field. While I have enjoyed amazing mentorship and support from members in the field, I wanted to prevent another generation of students from having to wait decades to meet people that look like them in academia.

The project, “Building a More Inclusive Future: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies,” which is described in detail below, is an innovative undergraduate mentorship program designed to tackle this issue. Generously funded through a grant from the U.S. Russia Foundation, this initiative has been composed of three parts. In October 2019 students from the U of Arizona, U of Puerto Rico, and Howard U participated in a two-day professional and academic workshop in Washington, D.C. They visited institutions that engage with Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (REEES) beyond academia, learned about different types of professional graduate programs, and listened to more traditional research presentations.

In February 2020 we had an administrative conference where faculty and administrators contemplated how to innovate outreach programs for our field. Summer 2020 was supposed to end with us traveling to Russia with a group of students and administrators from the three participating Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs).

Then the pandemic hit, and we unfortunately had to cancel our trip to Russia; however, we found new possibilities in virtual programming. We developed two initiatives, a Cybersecurity Simulation and a Think Tank, where students worked in teams with academic mentors to produce research projects based on the students’ interests. We found out a few important details. First, there are a lot more students of diverse backgrounds interested in REEES than we thought. Second, reaching out to them should not promote traditional exclusionist and elitist practices such as requiring three or four years of Russian before students can participate in the program. We allowed beginning students to participate, as long as they showed up and put in the effort. Last, but not least, lots of faculty are willing to help mentor these students if you ask. And ask we did. We ended up with over seventy undergraduates from eight universities participating in both programs. 

We also saw some of the disturbing national trends reflected in the group that worked with us. A considerable number of the faculty members that volunteered (including myself and a fellow Co-PI) are not tenure-track faculty. Hopefully the success of a program like this will indicate to our institutions the vitality and importance of REEES, and that our respective disciplines are alive, attracting new cohorts of students, and worth investing time, energy, and funds to continue growing.

Best of all, though, were the final projects: the performance on the day of the Cybersecurity Simulation and the digital research projects first presented at ASEEES that will soon be on display on the Howard U Russian Minor homepage. With these successes in mind, I feel confident that this generation will not be alone.

II. Project Design and Learning OutcomesColleen Lucey and Kelly Knickmeier Cummings
“The whole Think Tank group felt more like a community and not just peers and faculty working together.” –Jessica Diez, undergraduate from U of Miami
After the October 2019 student workshop at Howard U, we realized that coordinating our efforts to bring more undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds to REEES would require broader support from faculty and administrators across the U.S. We therefore held a meeting with Howard alumni, faculty from MSIs, representatives from several Title VI National Resource Centers, and a few others at Howard U in February 2020 to review best practices, the state of the field, and how we could coordinate across campuses. We had no idea that a month later we would rapidly transition to fully online teaching in the wake of Covid-19, but the meeting helped set the groundwork for a major outreach campaign to bring students of color to REEES through a mentorship program, a support network, and a comprehensive project that included a research stipend.

At the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, when it became clear that in-person meetings would not be possible for some time, the four of us reached out to a number of faculty at MSIs and institutions with large populations of underrepresented students to help recruit a cohort of undergraduates who would take part in two concurrent digital programs: 1) “Undergraduate Think Tank: Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in REEES”; and 2) “U.S. – Russia Cybersecurity Simulation with Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins.” Thanks to the hard work of the following faculty, our team was able to recruit 33 students for the Think Tank and 38 for the Cybersecurity Simulation: Johanna Bockman (George Mason U), Choi Chatterjee and Timothy Paynich (Cal State LA), Natalie McCauley (U of Richmond), Sunnie Rucker-Chang (U of Cincinnati), Rachel Stauffer (Virginia Tech, James Madison U), and Julia Vaingurt (U of Illinois, Chicago). Together with students from Howard U, U of Miami, and U of Arizona this diverse undergraduate cohort came together with the tremendous help of the above faculty. Zachary Kelly, Assistant Director of Berkeley’s Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, has likewise offered invaluable support over the years and continues to assist with outreach and programming.
Students who took part in the Think Tank were grouped together based on similar interests and over a two-month period prepared a research presentation for the ASEEES Convention. To help guide their research and acclimate them to the field, a generous group of scholars emerged to assist the undergraduates in their preparation for ASEEES (see list of faculty mentors below). Without their efforts and countless hours of work with students, the project could not have gotten off the ground and we are immensely grateful for their dedication.

The incredible support from ASEEES staff, particularly Lynda Park, made it possible for this first cohort of undergraduates to take part in the convention; not only did ASEEES staff accommodate a quick turnaround organizing panels, they also offered a warm welcome to this new generation of REEES scholars. 

Individual mentorship combined with the experience of taking part in a national conference offered students a unique opportunity to explore the disciplines of REEES, and hopefully inspired them to continue their studies now and in the future. “ASEEES was a unique experience that allowed me to see the range of possibilities that are available to me in the future,” reflected Marilyn Robles Valenzuela, a freshman at U of Arizona. “I learned how to adapt to the circumstances and work as a team with my group members,” she explained. The Think Tank also successfully brought students together with mentors who are specialists in their topics of interest. Damian Cabrera, an undergraduate at U of Illinois-Chicago, reflected that “one of my favorite parts of this program was being able to connect with all sorts of fellow students and mentors/professors from all over the country, spanning many different ethnicities. This allowed me to gain new perspectives through collaboration.”   

Working together with their groups, students integrated feedback from their mentors and created a final digital humanities project. These projects will be posted on the Howard U website in March 2021. The wide range of presentation topics—from the African American experience in the USSR, to LGBTQ+ literary works, to climate change in Russia—showcase the variety of interests and expertise the students gained. In addition to developing research skills, students who wanted to complete podcast episodes based on their research were able to study podcasting with Sean Guillory, host of the SRB Podcast. Student feedback illustrated that such projects were one of the most profound aspects of the program. Aissa Dearing, an undergraduate from Howard U, reflected, “I gained more skills in writing concisely, presenting online, and crafting a podcast episode! I also was able to practice converting difficult climate-related biological concepts into a presentation that was easy to understand.” 

III. Lessons Learned and Next StepsKrista Goff and Colleen Lucey
As an undergraduate student-centered program that incorporated research projects and mentorship, the Think Tank could become a regular occurrence at the ASEEES Convention and other conferences as well. It brought together a diverse cohort of students from across the country and helped them connect not only with other undergraduates but also with expert mentors, graduate program representatives, REEES professionals who provided career advice, and ASEEES members who attended their conference panels. It was important to us that we foster student autonomy, be flexible, and provide guidance and resources—including student stipends—to empower students participating in this inaugural Think Tank initiative. As De’Vonte Tinsley, an undergraduate at Virginia Tech explained, “During the course of our research I learned the value of choosing the right topic, and knowing the limits of your skills and funding, which unfortunately can stop you from doing certain types of research. I also learned that it was okay to change direction in your research, as it happens to researchers fairly frequently.” 

With the support of the U.S. Russia Foundation, we will organize another Cybersecurity Simulation and Think Tank in 2021. We plan to recruit students from more universities, including undergraduates from smaller programs who join not as part of an institutional cohort but independently to gain fellowship opportunities outside their home institution. We also hope to build on last year’s successes by maintaining a lasting sense of community among undergraduates, graduate students, and career and academic mentors. Ultimately, we want to foster more pathways between the Think Tank and further studies in REEES.

None of this would be possible if not for the generous partnerships that the program has benefitted from thus far. Going forward, we would like to see this initiative grow and intersect with other efforts to generate and support diverse cohorts of students in REEES. Building a robust network that will help all students feel welcome, less isolated, and excited about the future of this field is essential for the continuation of our disciplines. If you are interested in participating in the Think Tank as a mentor, institutional sponsor, or as an undergraduate scholar, please email Krista Goff ( or click here. We need DH and subject-matter advisors for new student projects this year, but also professional mentors willing to offer career guidance to participating students.

In planning the project, we sought input from students, scholars, and professionals of color in the field regarding what practices would improve the retention of underrepresented students in our disciplines. They consistently pointed to the need not only for more and better mentoring and networking opportunities for undergraduates, but a reassessment of how we think about programming, curricula, study abroad preparation, access to resources, K-12 outreach, and much more. While considerable efforts are needed to make REEES a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive space, ongoing initiatives like this one can help solidify our field’s commitment to promoting and supporting new generations of scholars and professionals as they embark on their academic and professional careers in REEES.

We would like to express profound gratitude to the following mentors who worked with and supported this cohort of undergraduates: Naomi Caffee (Reed College), Joy Gleason Carew (U of Louisville), Emily Couch (Independent Researcher), Leah Feldman (U of Chicago), Thomas Garza (U of Texas at Austin), Sean Guillory (U of Pittsburgh), Erik Herron (West Virginia U), Julie Hessler (U of Oregon), Yvonne Howell (U of Richmond), Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon (U of Pennsylvania), Hilary Lynd (U of California Berkeley), Marintha Miles (George Mason U), Aaron Retish (Wayne State U), Sunnie Rucker-Chang (U of Cincinnati), Valerie Sperling (Clark University), Anika Walke (Washington U in St. Louis), Emily Wang (U of Notre Dame).

B. Amarilis Lugo de Fabritz, PhD, is a Master Instructor of Russian at Howard U.
Colleen Lucey, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at the U of Arizona. 
Krista Goff, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Russian and Soviet History at the U of Miami.
Kelly Knickmeier Cummings, PhD, is a Lecturer in Russian at Howard U.