A study by the Council of Graduate Schools found that most Black and Latinx doctoral students in STEM fields do not earn their degrees within seven years, and many leave their programs.

This is just one of the statistics related to the challenges members of under-represented minority groups face when seeking a career in academia — and it’s just one example of the reasons why, more than 30 years ago, Colorado College instituted the Riley Scholars-in-Residence Program, and why, in the 2020s, it’s received a reboot.

Since 1988, the Riley Scholars Program has helped those in under-represented minority groups prepare for careers in academia, or determine if such a career is right for them. Every year, four to six individuals progress through the program, many with goals of becoming faculty members at CC or other colleges and universities.

“One of the great benefits of the program for fellows is that they have a job in which they don’t have service obligations and their teaching load is reduced, but they’re still paid sufficiently so they can focus on their dissertations, completing their scholarship, and navigating the job market,” says Heidi R. Lewis, director and associate professor of feminist and gender studies.

The latter, she adds, can be a challenge for pre-doctoral academics. Some never complete their dissertations or Ph.D.s. Financial realities force many to get a job instead and the demands of that job preclude them from working on and finishing their Ph.D.s.

The Program at Heart

Colorado College is a member of the Consortium for Faculty Diversity, whose goal is to increase the diversity of students and curricular offerings at liberal arts colleges, with a particular focus on enhancing the diversity of faculty members and of applicants for faculty positions. The Riley Scholars Program offers predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships to scholars hired through the consortium. Victor Nelson-Cisneros, retired associate dean at Colorado College, was both a co-founder of the CFD and was instrumental in the establishment of CC’s Riley Scholars Program.

The Riley Scholars Program provides its fellows opportunities to complete their dissertations or cultivate their postdoctoral research and enter the academic job market while gaining meaningful experience teaching undergraduates in a liberal arts setting. The program also provides CC departments and programs with opportunities to enhance mentoring skills, expand and reimagine course offerings and improve departmental and programmatic climate.

The program aims to recruit and retain faculty with marginalized social identities in the professoriate, especially at liberal arts colleges in the U.S. The program also aims to situate Colorado College as a premier site for faculty development, especially for undergraduate teaching excellence and quality scholarship.

Last year, along with Lewis being named director of and support specialist for the Riley Scholars  Program, the program itself got a reboot, including a renewed focus on the mentorship of the fellows and a new focus on mentor development. And today, as Lewis works with the fellows as they navigate the program, Peony Fhagen, senior associate dean for equity, inclusion, and faculty development, works with departments and programs interested in or currently hosting Riley Scholars.

The benefits of the Riley Scholars Program represent something of a two-way street, offering advantages to both the college and the fellows. The program helps the college achieve a more diverse faculty with new perspectives, and renewing CC’s commitment to the Riley Scholars  Program aligns with the college’s antiracism goals.

Lewis and Fhagen have worked to create a robust, intentional mentoring program for Riley Scholars. “Regardless of whether they stay at CC or go to a different institution, while they’re here, Riley Scholars are going to get good mentoring and support,” Lewis says.

And many do stay. Some current members of the faculty or administration who started out as Riley Scholars include Claire Oberon Garcia, acting provost, dean of the faculty and professor of English; Mario Montaño, professor emeritus of anthropology; Manya Whitaker, chair and associate professor of education; and Brian Rommel-Ruiz, professor of history. Lewis also is a former Riley Scholar.

The Program in Action

Riley Scholar Juan Miguel Arias ’12 attended Colorado College for his undergraduate education from 2008 to 2012, when he graduated magna cum laude with distinction. A neuroscience major, he served as a paraprofessional in the Psychology and Neuroscience Departments for a year before beginning his graduate training. He first received a Master of Science degree in developmental and comparative psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Following that, he entered a Ph.D. program at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, focusing on developmental and psychological sciences, finishing in Summer 2020.

His major interests were youth development, thriving, and equity, and he really wanted to find a way to connect that with other things he’s passionate about, including cultural histories of environmentalism and engagement with the outdoors. Arias identifies as Latino; he was born in Colombia, and moved to the U.S. with his mom when very young.

“It was always an extracurricular thing — my interest in the environment and the outdoors — always separate from my academic pursuits. But then I thought, ‘why don’t I do that in education?’ So I shifted into environmental education,” Arias says. “The main questions I work on now are: How do we make environmental education more equitable? How do we best support historically excluded people in demonstrating and cultivating their own forms of environmentalism? I’d like to help a whole range of kids and communities remember how uplifting a connection to nature can be, and how environmentalism has deep roots in cultural and social justice.”

As he was finishing his doctoral studies, Arias reached out to the CC Education Department to let them know he was about to be on the job market and see what opportunities might be available. He was told that the department was looking for a young professor to teach classes for the Teaching & Research in Environmental Education (TREE) Semester, and that he should look into the Consortium for Faculty Diversity and the Riley Scholars Program. CC hired him as a Riley Scholar.

“It was a very good alignment of the Education Department’s needs and my interests and goals. I’ve been falling in love again with everything CC is trying to be about,” he says.

Arias says it’s felt good — like a homecoming — returning to family (his family moved to Colorado Springs a few years ago) and alma mater.

“It doesn’t feel like I just left. I very much feel the nine years that it’s been. To come back to a place that I knew when I was a different person in many ways — I still love this place and I have so many new things to contribute now. I’ve been shaped and remolded, coming out on the other side of a long grad program. Now I’m working alongside others at the college on equity, justice, and antiracism at the faculty level. Not only do I want to, but I also feel very capable. I know I can do it. I continue to learn a lot and I’m grateful to be doing it here.”

Arias spent much of the summer of 2020 in the mountains near Woodland Park, Colorado, at the Catamount Center, teaching CC students in a fully masked, socially distanced setting for the TREE Semester course Foundations of Environmental Education. He also taught Critical Education Theory. The following semester he taught Educational Psychology and a master’s-level course, Teaching Identities.

Although starting a new job during a pandemic has been hard in many ways, he’s been pleased with the experience of being a Riley Scholar.

“CC seems sincere in working to diversify the composition of its faculty and I’m excited to be a part of that. Not only am I on the receiving end of that as a Riley Scholar, but the work I do can also help move us forward on our antiracist ambitions. I have things to give to CC and I’m given resources to do that — even though it’s been a challenge because of the pandemic. There’s been a lot of concrete mentoring and informal reaching out from colleagues; ‘Let’s have a Zoom coffee, a distanced chat on the porch, etc.’ It has been very helpful.”