Penn State senior Denzel Middleton is recovering from THON, the annual student-run dance marathon. As an independent dance couple, he and his partner raised over $11,000 – a significant percentage of the $13.3 million raised this year.
Middleton believes he was able to succeed at THON, complete his graduate school applications, and serve as an officer for two student organizations by drawing on the time management skills he learned this past summer at the Student Research Opportunities Program (SROP) at Ohio State University, where he conducted graduate level research in agricultural science.
For the past 28 years, Big Ten universities have sponsored SROP with the goal of increasing the number of underrepresented students who pursue graduate studies and research careers. Although diversity initiatives are now common, SROP was the first program of its kind. It has served over 11,000 students, opening doors to some of the top graduate schools in the country for populations which previously had limited access to those programs.
Middleton, who is studying plant science at Penn State, first learned about the program from a friend who was a SROP alumnus. Having missed the initial application deadline, he persuaded Cyndi Freeman, program coordinator at Ohio State since 2007, to give him a chance. Accepted into SROP, he spent the summer with 12 other SROP students at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, a rural area characterized by its Amish and Mennonite population.
There, he became the thread between a group of students who were diverse not only in their racial and ethnic backgrounds, but in their academic backgrounds. First generation students, students from historically black colleges and universities, and students from rival Big Ten schools came together, unified by their shared interest in agricultural research.
For Middleton, like many SROP students before him, it was a transformative experience where he learned more about himself and the options for his future. It convinced him that he had the ability to succeed in graduate school, and he has since applied to Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan.
The strength of the SROP program network guarantees that participants will be given serious consideration for graduate programs at any Big Ten university. Furthermore, many faculty members are former SROP participants themselves.
“We talk a lot about the pipeline, from undergraduate to graduate, then onto research and Ph.D. programs, and then onto faculty who ultimately become leaders of the university,” explains Charity Farber, Senior Program Manager of SROP for the Committee for Institutional Cooperation, an organization that oversees the program at all of its member institutions. “Faculty members tell us that a diverse population gives them new ideas and offers perspectives that may shape research and the direction of their fields.”
Over the years, Cyndi Freeman has witnessed how SROP has transformed not only its student participants but the university communities themselves. She describes the program as creating a different energy around scholarship, leadership, and how students learn from one another. As an example, Freeman points to graduate programs such as bioengineering which attract a high percentage of international students, many of whom may never have met an African American student, an Appalachian native, or a Native American.
But when SROP participants excel in their graduate programs by asking all the right questions and exhibiting a mastery of research skills, they transform perspectives and destroy negative stereotypes. In Wooster, Ohio, Middleton was the rare example of an African American student with expertise in plant science.
SROP is selective, accepting only 450 students. Although there is a common application used by five participating schools, each Big Ten university sets its own criteria for admittance and selects students who best complement the academic goals and focus of the university. Once on campus, students spend eight to ten weeks engaged in graduate level research, overseen by a faculty mentor.
From their faculty mentors, they learn how to navigate the graduate school application process, how to craft a personal statement, how to approach faculty members and how to hone interview skills.
“SROP is a way to transform a campus community,” says Freeman. “Through their actions, these students are seen as scholars, as researchers and as potential actors for the future.”