Q&A with Aimee Lay
For Black History Month, we checked in with the Grad School's Student Equity Experiences Coordinator
What does the Student Equity Experiences Coordinator do?
I focus on leading the Graduate and Professional School’s efforts to advance, implement and execute measurable actions that lead toward greater diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) within the graduate and professional community. One example of what I do is the implementation of diversity, equity and inclusion sessions into New Graduate Student Orientation. These sessions provide new graduate and professional students with insight on how their individual core values align with others, helping them identify similarities among their peers, making connections and developing mutual respect that will be beneficial to their journey at Texas A&M.
How long have you been in this role?
I joined the Graduate and Professional School in July of 2022. While I haven’t been here long, I have hit the ground running. It’s a new position for the Graduate and Professional School, and I foresee tons of opportunity for actions that will have a lasting impact. And with the institutional support we have to create positive change, I’m exciting about what we can accomplish!
The percentage of Black/African American students in graduate programs at Texas A&M is below Texas’s population composition. Can you tell us about current Graduate and Professional School initiatives to increase Black/African American student enrollment to better reflect the diversity of our state?
As a public, land-grant university, student demographics should more closely reflect the demographics of our state. To address this disparity, the Graduate and Professional School plans to expand and build on the success of programs that are designed to seek, engage, and support diverse scholars interested in Texas A&M University. These programs include the Avilés-Johnson Fellowship Program, SREB Scholars Program, SEC Emerging Scholars Program, and the Gaines Scholars Program.
The Avilés-Johnson Fellowship Program seeks to increase diversity in the graduate and professional student population at Texas A&M and support the development of high achieving scholars who show promise of distinguished careers for the benefit of all students. Formally called the Diversity Excellence Fellowships, we renamed the program after Dr. Dionel Avilés ’53 and Dr. James Johnson ’67, the first Hispanic and first Black doctoral degree earners in Texas A&M history.
The Graduate and Professional School’s partnership with the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) began in 2014, through the Institute on Teaching and Mentoring, the largest gathering of underrepresented minority (URM) doctoral scholars in the country. That partnership morphed into our current participation in the SREB Scholars program. Through the SREB Scholars program the Grad School and SREB offer support to Ph.D. students who will ultimately increase faculty diversity in the nation's universities.
With the SEC Emerging Scholars program, we are partnered with all 14 Southeastern Conference universities to encourage distinguished scholars from each university-- particularly those from historically underrepresented groups -- to seek employment and mentorship from other SEC universities. This year we selected five students to attend the program’s annual workshop, where they were able to receive valuable feedback on preparing for the job market from faculty and staff affiliated with the SEC institutions.
The Gaines Graduate Scholars Teaching Exchange Program is a two-semester program. In the first semester, advanced doctoral students both at PVAMU and TAMU engage in a semester-long professional development series aimed at creating community and supporting diverse learners at the partner institution. In the second semester, the scholars are paid to teach an undergraduate course in their field of expertise at the partner institution. These programs are intended to ensure that DEI is embedded in the infrastructure of both universities and to create a natural pipeline from PVAMU to TAMU in our efforts to diversify the graduate and professional student population.
Where is there additional opportunity for increasing Black enrollment?
It’s not just about increasing enrollment. The more important goal is to establish better connections to Black communities. That will help us develop sustainable support models to meet the needs of our Black students. This must be our approach with any communities where faith in higher education is low.
Genuine engagement will enable us to build trust. Then we can start to share with them how the research and teaching that takes place on our campus benefits the world, as well as how educational opportunities can help transform their communities.
Our enrollment will become more diverse when connections are established and nourished. Students enroll where they and their parents know they are going to be supported and invested in.
How about campus climate? What are some of the ways the Graduate and Professional School is trying to make our campus more welcoming to underrepresented student populations, in particular Black/African American students?
We host an annual Black Community Mixer in the Fall that provides the students, faculty,staff and administration with an evening of networking and socializing. It is an opportunity for new and current scholars to interact with one another outside of their academic homes and build relationships with staff and faculty.
We also partner with the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) organization throughout the year to lend our support and provide assistance. They are very engaged and active on campus. They are largely involved in the Graduate and Professional School as well as with the African American Professional Organization (AAPO) of whom we partner with as well.
We also survey students on how we can improve our campus climate and take actions by offering programming or support based on their input.
Are there things you see at the university level that you think are positive steps for better serving our Black students?
We have a strategic plan from our Office of Diversity here at Texas A&M that I think is moving forward with a tiered plan to show that increasing Black enrollment to 30% and degrees awarded to 25% is important to not only the Office of Diversity but to the university as well. Likewise, the Graduate and Professional School’s strategic plan includes the establishment of university-wide initiatives to recruit and retain URM graduate students.
What attracted you to this kind of work?
I have previously worked as a DEI Facilitator and in the field of social advocacy for several years. I have a deep commitment to addressing the societal challenges that disproportionately affect individuals – primarily black and brown people -- along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. These challenges are rooted in systemic discrimination. Being able to elevate and bring awareness to diverse perspectives, create an inclusive environment, as well as assisting with developing an equitable focused approached is a service responsibility that I feel deeply passionate about.
What is your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of my job is being able to have a skyline view of all that we are offering to our graduate and professional students. It’s important to be able to have a professional dedicated to identifying ways to ensure that our students and staff are represented, that those who want an opportunity have the door opened for them, and that each person’s ideas and perspectives are heard and validated. I’m invested in making sure that DEI is not just a component of our organization, but that it becomes embedded in the infrastructure of our institution. And that’s gratifying.
What do you (or would you) say to Black/African American students considering graduate or professional programs at Texas A&M?
Know what program you want to pursue, but it is equally important to know the kinds of support available to you to help you be successful while you are obtaining that degree or certificate. Along with a world-class education, Texas A&M offers competitive funding and has a multitude of organizations, professional development, and advocacy and support resources to support you while you’re a student and after you graduate and embark on your professional career. Get connected to organizations, be active and affiliated with networks that are building community and be adamant about making sure you have a healthy environment that is conducive to your success. We’re a large institution, but you’ll be supported. And you definitely find community here.