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Reimagining an On-Campus Research Experience During COVID-19

Published: May 6, 2020

Reimagining an On-Campus Research Experience During COVID-19

During a virutal meeting with the ACM, GSEF fellows learned about summer program's new format due to COVID-19.


Amid campus closures, the ACM and the Big Ten Academic Alliance pivoted to provide underrepresented aspiring graduate students with a robust, remote summer program.


In early March, when U.S. colleges began moving classes online due to COVID-19, many hoped that summer programs could resume as planned. But Brittany Dominguez was already beginning to worry.

Dominguez, a junior at Carleton College, is one of 27 recipients of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest’s Graduate School Exploration Fellowship (GSEF), a program funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to help underrepresented students in the humanities and social sciences learn about and prepare for graduate study. A key feature of the fellowship is a summer research experience at a university in the Big Ten Academic Alliance, designed to offer a realistic sense of life as a graduate student. GSEF fellows live on campus and work with faculty on a research project while participating in other programs geared toward preparing for graduate school.

“We didn’t want students to be up in the air about what their summer plans would be. Deciding early to go to a remote format gave us the time to think about what we could do to preserve as much as possible of the on-campus research experience.”

Allen Linton II, Director of Diversity & Inclusion Initiatives, ACM

Besides looking forward to the program, Dominguez and many of her peers were planning on the summer housing, food, and stipend that come with the fellowship. But as more and more schools sent students home, uncertain when they would resume on-campus study, Dominguez saw her summer plans urgently thrown into question.

“I was concerned about whether we would still be paid, which affects our financial aid and other things we need to pay for throughout the year,” she said. “I began wondering if I had to apply for something else—but I also wasn’t sure if there would be anything to apply for.”

Even as some Big Ten schools held out hope that they would resume operations by summer, the ACM made the difficult decision in early April that GSEF would not go on as planned. “We didn’t want students to be up in the air about what their summer plans would be,” said Allen Linton II, Director of Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives at the ACM. “Deciding early to go to a remote format gave us the time to think about what we could do to preserve as much as possible of the on-campus research experience.”

Each fall, GSEF fellows attend a summit to present on their summer research and gain additional insight into pursuing graduate study.

Thanks to some creativity and flexibility on the parts of the ACM and the Big Ten Academic Alliance, the GSEF fellows will each work remotely with one or more faculty members from a Big Ten or ACM school, either on the student’s own research or as a research assistant. Big Ten Academic Alliance universities will provide weekly webinars to the cohort on such topics as networking, building a personal brand, master’s versus PhD programs, and financing a graduate education. And based on student feedback, the ACM has also added a new component to this summer’s program—a three-week virtual writing seminar that will provide each student with one-on-one coaching.

Brenda Matias-Cruz

“Those one-on-ones will really help,” said Brenda Matias-Cruz, a sociology and anthropology major at Monmouth College who’ll be participating from her family’s home in Chicago. She hopes to use this summer to refine her research interests and thinks the writing seminar will be important preparation for writing her senior paper. “I’m glad this is one of the things that’s been added this year,” she said.

“GSEF provides an important pathway for first-generation, minority, and other underrepresented students to explore and gain access to graduate study and academic careers,” said Brian Williams, Vice President of Faculty Development and Grant Programs at the ACM. “As COVID-19 challenges so many aspects of our lives and of higher education as we know it, the ACM is exceedingly proud to collaborate with our deans, faculty, and the Big Ten Academic Alliance to reimagine the summer research experience for this year’s GSEF fellows.”

“As COVID-19 challenges so many aspects of our lives and of higher education as we know it, the ACM is exceedingly proud to collaborate with our deans, faculty, and the Big Ten Academic Alliance to reimagine the summer research experience.”

Brian Williams, Vice President of Faculty Development & Grant Programs, ACM

Crucially, fellows will still receive the $4,000 summer stipend as well as $750 to offset food costs. With other savings in the grant budget, the ACM also created a fund to provide additional support to students who aren’t able to live at home as well as for technology needs such as laptops or internet access. 

“We didn’t want to make a research program that was really strong without recognizing that life is different,” said Linton. “We wanted to eliminate barriers to participation in as equitable a way as possible.”

“I get to come home, but I also have to help with bills, groceries and things,” said Dominguez, who lives in Houston, Texas. “We struggle financially, but my mom is the person I live with and she’s super supportive.” Dominguez will be working with two faculty members at Rutgers University and hopes to study how social and cultural capital are contributing to K-12 education inequality during the pandemic.

“GSEF helped me frame my goals for what I want to do, understand what grad school really means, and what I need to do to be successful."

Case Osborn, Colorado College student

Case Osborn, a political science major at Colorado College, will be working with his thesis advisor, Assistant Professor of Political Science Elizabeth Coggins. “We have a whole plan for what we’re going to achieve this summer,” he said, which includes hands-on training in research methods and statistical analysis, followed by a joint research project to understand how a subgroup of voters, “conflicted conservatives,” are responding to the pandemic.

“By the end of the summer, the goal is to have written a scholarly article about this research question,” said Osborn. “My hope is whatever we produce this summer will be the foundational work for my thesis.”

Osborn, who will graduate next year, plans to apply to PhD programs this fall, and he credits GSEF with helping him to identify and prepare for that goal.

“I do not really have anybody in my family or anyone close to me who has done a PhD. GSEF helped me frame my goals for what I want to do, understand what grad school really means, and what I need to do to be successful,” he said. “I’m very grateful for GSEF and everything that has been done to continue the summer program—extremely grateful.”

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