From before they enroll at UW-Madison to beyond their graduation, Kelly Burton strives to create a positive, personal experience for underrepresented minority graduate students in the College of Engineering.
Burton joined the college in 1999 to implement GERS, the Graduate Engineering Scholars Program. Based on Rice University Professor Richard Tapia’s mentorship model, GERS began as a five-year pilot program with the UW-Madison Graduate School. Its goals were to increase underrepresented minority enrollment in and graduation rates from graduate programs within the college. “When I ask a chemical engineer from Puerto Rico or a black mechanical engineer from Tennessee what motivates them to come to Madison, they often respond that, although it is the merit of our departments that drew them to UW-Madison, it is the feeling that they would be cared for and belong to a community that made them feel like they could live in Madison,” says a student. “None of that exists without Kelly.”
Burton recruits students, tracks their applications, and connects them with a faculty member whose research interests match their own. Before the students arrive on campus, Burton ensures they have funding for the duration of their degree program. Through lectures, workshops, social events and regular group meetings, she demonstrates her commitment to the emotional, physical and mental well-being of each student. “Kelly has helped to foster a tightly knit, supportive community among the GERS students that erases feelings of isolation that many diversity students encounter,” says a former student. “As a result, diversity students are more likely to complete their graduate studies at UW-Madison.”
Under Burton, GERS is accomplishing its initial goals. In the college, enrollment of underrepresented minority graduate students increased from 18 in fall 1999 to 51 students in fall 2005; from 2000 through December 2007, 32 students earned MS degrees and 19 students earned PhD degrees. Of those PhD recipients, four accepted faculty positions, two are postdoctoral fellows, and 13 are working in industry, government agencies or at national labs. The Graduate School has promoted the GERS model to other UW-Madison schools and colleges; as a result, the College of Letters & Science, School of Education, and jointly the College of Agricultural & Life Sciences and the School of Medicine & Public Health have worked with Burton to establish similar programs. Says a colleague: “She knows the field of diversity not only in theory, but in practice, and not only in her head, but in her heart and on the ground as well.”