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With support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the University of Wisconsin–Madison will establish a new hub called the Wisconsin Sloan Center for Systemic Change, or WiSC2, to transform graduate education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

WiSC2 will foster best practices in equitable and inclusive community-building, mentorship training, graduate student recruitment and other areas that help graduate students thrive on campus and achieve positive career outcomes.

UW–Madison is one of just 10 institutions nationwide to receive funding from the Sloan Foundation as part of the non-profit philanthropy’s larger initiative, which includes a multi-year, $30 million commitment to these institutions. The two-year, $250,000 seed grant will help WiSC2 initiate collaboration within and across campus departments to build a cohort-based community of peers and mentors centered around graduate students’ sense of inclusion, wellbeing, satisfaction, belonging, and empowerment.

“With this support from the Sloan Foundation, we are well-positioned to leverage the expertise on our campus to create new approaches to STEM graduate education that cultivate a true sense of belonging and wellbeing for students,” says William J. Karpus, Dean of the Graduate School. “This center will first serve as a model for our campus, and then as a model for institutions nationwide, of how to foster collaboration that supports graduate student success to create a stronger university overall.”

Research at UW–Madison and elsewhere has shown that student success is not only influenced by students’ academic preparation and self-efficacy but also by their sense of community and their feelings of belonging. This is especially true for students underrepresented in higher education. The new center aims to strengthen the environment for graduate students at UW–Madison, including Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students, students from rural areas, and students who are the first in their families to attend graduate school, and support a diverse student body.

The center will lean heavily on the success of existing knowledge at UW–Madison, including nationally-recognized leadership in mentorship, bias reduction, and equitable and inclusive practices. Programs such as the Graduate Research Scholars communities and professional development training coordinated by the Graduate School will also provide frameworks for the center’s success.

WiSC2 will also leverage this knowledge to train faculty and staff at the department level to become culturally aware mentors and foster environments of inclusion, belonging, and well-being. Department leadership and faculty will participate in communities of practice around these topics.

Karpus serves as the contact principal investigator (PI) with Deans Eric Wilcots (College of Letters and Science) and Ian Robertson (College of Engineering) serving as co-PIs. Professor Erika Marín-Spiotta (Department of Geography) will serve as director of WiSC2 and professor Victor Zavala (Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering) will serve as associate director.

The center will launch this spring with the formation of a steering committee and a community advisory board. The project team will then engage with participating STEM departments.

After the two-year seed grant period, UW–Madison will be eligible to apply for an additional implementation grant from the Sloan Foundation, which would include direct scholarship funds for graduate students. Those students would join the university as part of a Sloan Scholars cohort within their department, with connections to college-wide and campus-wide groups of Sloan Scholars that would broaden their opportunities for networking, peer mentorship and community-building.

“Our ultimate goal with the Wisconsin Sloan Center for Systemic Change is to see improved student satisfaction, a stronger sense of inclusion and belonging among historically underrepresented graduate students, and positive change across campus through better access to professional development and communities of practice – all resulting in all of our graduate students achieving the career outcomes they desire,” Karpus says.

This story was originally published by the Graduate School at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.