Wellesley College Awarded a $1 Million Grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to Support Inclusive Excellence on Campus

Graphic that reads: 33 schools selected in 2018, 1M$ five year grant, Catalyzing a Culture of Inclusion in Science Education
Image credit: Howard Hughes Medical Institute
June 21, 2018

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has announced that this year Wellesley will receive one of its $1 million awards to support inclusive excellence. HHMI is a leading philanthropic organization focused on support for scientists and science education; the grants are part of its highly selective Inclusive Excellence Initiative. The initiative aims “to catalyze schools’ efforts to engage all students in science—regardless of background,” including underrepresented ethnic minorities and first‐generation college students, the Institute said.

Wellesley will use the five-year grant to support faculty development related to issues such as stereotype threat (that is, the fear of being seen as possessing the negative stereotypes of an underrepresented group) and unconscious bias. The College will also focus on enhancing culturally competent pedagogy to advance intensive course and curriculum reforms and academic advising. These steps will move Wellesley closer to its institutional goal of inclusivity and equity across campus. Wellesley will also work with HHMI and its partner, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), to evaluate progress and refine its approach. “This initiative is about encouraging colleges and universities to change the way they do business—to become institutions with a significantly greater capacity for inclusion of all students, especially those from nontraditional backgrounds,” said HHMI President Erin O’Shea.

“This grant will provide resources to help faculty transform our science classrooms to be more inclusive of all learners, regardless of race, ethnicity, or educational background; to improve our academic advising and build new relationships with our colleagues in the Student Life division; and to create new academic-year fellowships to engage with students as peers in pedagogical development, outreach, and mentoring,” said Megan Núñez, professor of chemistry. Núñez was a co-principal investigator of the grant along with Cathy Summa, associate provost and director of the Science Center; Akila Weerapana, associate professor of economics and outgoing faculty director of the Pforzheimer Learning and Teaching Center (PLTC); and Ann Trenk, professor of mathematics.

“By devoting ourselves to enhancing our students' experience of community, engagement, and belonging both inside and outside the classroom, we hope to create an environment where all of our students can excel,” Núñez said.

The HHMI grant comes at a time of momentum for the College’s inclusive excellence goals.  “We have the data that will help us shape what will be a campus-wide initiative; we have institutional focus like never before, and we have a clear commitment from across our campus to build inclusion and equity into every aspect of the College,” said President Paula A. Johnson.

“It is an exciting time to be at the College,” said Oscar Fernandez, associate professor of mathematics, incoming faculty director of the PLTC, and co-founder of the Wellesley Emerging Scholars Initiative, which supports underrepresented students in mathematics. Fernandez believes that the HHMI grant will enable faculty and staff to “scale up”—and connect “in synergistic ways”—many of the programs currently in place to support inclusive excellence in the sciences. This will increase the “current programs’ overall capacity to support students studying science at Wellesley,” he said. “The grant will also have an impact beyond the sciences, as it will spur interest in new, high-impact initiatives, including inclusive teaching and evidenced-based education.”

“As our world has changed, our student body has changed, which is a great thing; but for all the students of this new generation to thrive more fully, we need to catch up a little and evolve with the world so that we can respond to and teach our students more effectively,” said Yu Jin Ko, professor of English and member of the College’s Inclusive Excellence working group. “This grant will help everyone at the College, but for the faculty, this will help us to develop our teaching methods and strategies to become more mindful and effective teachers.”

HMMI’s approach to inclusive excellence aligns with Wellesley’s own. “Rather than deficit‐based thinking, the Inclusive Excellence initiative insists that schools recognize that the different perspectives that students of diverse backgrounds bring to science are assets, and then discover ways to nurture their potential,” said David Asai, HHMI’s senior director for science education.

“In recent years, Wellesley has initiated wonderful programs to help students succeed and persist in STEM fields,” said Trenk, such as the Posse Scholars Program and the Sophomore Early Research Program. “The HHMI grant will enable us to widen our approach in an effort to reach all of our students.”

This latest grant builds on previous awards that also promote inclusion and equity. Last fall, Wellesley received a McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program grant of $1.33 million to help underrepresented students pursue doctoral degrees in preparation academic careers. For 30 years, Wellesley has also offered Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowships, which have similar goals.