Are REUs always good for students enrolled in MSIs? It’s complicated.


In my department, we have a complicated relationship with REU (Research Experience for Undergraduate) programs. We have several well-funded active labs on my campus that provide quality mentored research opportunities to biology undergrads, so students in our department do who want to have impactful research experience have access to them. However, it’s still valuable for these students to go to an REU program at another university in the summer. REU programs*, especially those in places with a bunch of PhD students around, may have a strong positive impact on the professional trajectory of students who are doing their undergrad at primarily undergraduate institutions. Even though academics are known for unnecessarily qualifying general statements with “may,” “might,” or “possibly,” the may that I italicized in the previous sentence was there by design. It might have a positive impact. Or it might actually have a negative impact. It depends.

When our students head off to an REU, they get types of interactions that don’t happen much on our own campus. REUs often work closely with doctoral students, which allows them students to make personal connections with people who are some short career steps ahead of them. Our students get the chance to learn with their own eyes and ears what it’s like to get a PhD, and imagine whether that would be possible for them. I’ve seen these interactions all the time when I have brought students to work at a big field station. It really helps to know that you belong in the discipline, and building these connections beyond your own undergrad campus can help develop that feeling. During REUs, our students also gain access to some familiarity, and hopefully a bit of savvy, with the cultural norms of higher ed (though if we had a just and equitable community, then this shouldn’t matter, but, well, it still does). Moreover, when students travel away from home for an REU program, this is an opportunity for our students to live away from the community where they grew up for a short while, which is often the first such experience for most of our students. A lot of first-gen students are reluctant to move away from home (which is perfectly fine, a reflection of personal priorities, and not a deficiency in any kind of way) and those who are open to doing so have a lot more possibilities open to them. So if students learn about themselves while doing an REU that going to grad school out of town is a personally viable option, then helps them create opportunities.

Yes, without a doubt, REUs can offer a feast of possibility. The experience can be a substantial piece of the professional development of students who are attending undergraduate-serving institutions, even when these undergraduate institutions have amazing research opportunities. And there’s also a modest paycheck.

Notwithstanding all of the many good reasons to recommend our students head out to REUs for the summer, there is a single counterbalancing factor that often outweighs the good stuff: A lot of REU programs are commonly in white spaces that are often elitist. Students with minoritized identities and those from less prestigious regional public universities are more likely to have adverse experiences that are so problematic that it reduces the probability that they’ll head off to grad school. I’m not making this claim for the sake of argument. It’s a simple observation that I’m sharing with you. I’m spending the rest of this post to convince you of this fact and the consequences of this dynamic, and then discuss, just a little bit, about how we might manage our current situation so that we can do our best to equitably train the next generation of scientists.

I imagine, dear reader, that you might have shifted your mind to an REU site that you are familiar with, and are asking yourself, “How genuinely welcome is everybody there?” If that’s the case, I don’t know about the REU site you have in mind. I’m not a mind reader. But also even if I was capable of reading your mind through this screen, and I knew exactly which REU site you were thinking of, I still probably couldn’t tell you. I don’t have direct knowledge about many REU programs. But from the context of my own work environment, I’ve seen enough to know that the scope of this problem is a lot bigger than a lot of y’all realize. It would be nice if most REU sites were excellent for most first-gen non-white students from regional public universities. It would be wonderful. It would be cherries and rainbows. But I just don’t think that’s the case.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a colleague in my department about a research student in our department who was off for an REU this summer. I asked her, “What percent of students in our department do you think have positive experiences on their REUs?” Without missing a beat, she replied, “20%.” (That conversation, and the series of subsequent conversations that were in general agreement with the sentiment, is what led me to write this post.)

This was a smidge lower than I might have expected, but based on conversations with other people in my department, I can’t disagree that this is what’s going on. The optimist in me would imagine it might be a bit higher, but then I realize that a naive streak runs in me when it comes to trusting colleagues to offer quality mentorship opportunities to my students. There have too many times when I thought, “Oh, that should be a great experience for the student,” and then I learned after the summer was over that that particular student had a substantially negative experience.

I did happen to run a little twitter poll about this, too (Let’s not invest much stock into into this. I study ants, not people, but even I know that it’s unwise to read into what this poll says.) Anyhow, 25 self-reported as faculty at some type of minority-serving institution, sensu lato. About half said “yes” that most of their undergrads doing REUs had positive experiences, and the other half mostly said, essentially, well, “It’s complicated.”

It is complicated. It is messy. REU programs are designed to give a boost to students who are in positions where they both need that boost and who are positioned to gain the most from that boost. So when we can’t get most of the faculty who are teaching this population of students to agree that REUs are typically a positive experience for everybody involved, then how do we approach this conversation?

I think it’s critical to recognize the resources, hard work, careful planning, and an understanding of the positive outcomes associated with REU programs. NSF and other agencies have invested a lot of money into supporting undergraduate summer research programs. There is plenty of assessment conducted by the funding agencies and institutions that operate these sites. Plenty of REU site proposals are not funded, and the ones that do get funded present a very strong case they they will provide a quality research environment and thoughtful mentorship to the undergraduates that they recruit. A lot of guidelines have been developed, and in general they are implemented with a good level of fidelity. The NSF REU program includes an ethics component and the values of diversity, inclusion, and accessibility are baked into the stated priorities of the program. While there are the occasional bad actors (most often, I think, are PIs who treat REUs as mere sources of labor rather than researchers in training), the people running these programs typically have the best of intentions and go about their business in an appropriate and professional manner. The budgets for REUs flow nearly almost all the resources directly to the students themselves, and the people running these programs are essentially volunteering their own time, so running this program is more a matter of personal dedication than anything else.

So, then, what are the problems? What are the factors that make this messy?

I’d like to break this down into two categories: First is the general environment of the REU host institution, and the second is the operation of the REU site itself.

Let’s talk about how the institution running the REU program can be problematic. Many REU sites are PWIs. (Which, if you haven’t seen this acronym before, means Primarily White Institution.) For students who are attending minority-serving institutions as undergrads, and then go off to a PWI for a summer of REU, just walking across campus can be an alienating, and perhaps threatening, experience. In some cases, it can be genuinely unsafe, especially when dealing with campus and neighborhood police. It can be really, really hard for students to feel like they can belong when almost nobody there looks like them. Even if you lower the bar from “feel like REUs can genuinely belong” to merely “not feeling unsafe,” there are a lot of campuses where this is simply not going to happen. I’ve heard so many stories from students who have trouble going about their day-to-day lives over the course of a 2-month REU experience in a PWI located in a primarily white college town. For example, they might be sent to the campus stockroom to purchase some glassware with the lab’s account number to run their experiment, but the people working the stockroom don’t trust the student has the authority to make the transaction. They might be walking back to their on-campus housing and the campus police might be following them. People in the building might assume that they’re janitorial staff. These are just of the few of the problems that happen to non-white REUs in primarily white universities and communities. The problem might not just be the broader institutional context, but sometimes the department itself. REUs typically will spend plenty of time interacting with people in the department who are not part of the REU program. REU programs cannot magically change the culture of an entire department overnight, and if a department isn’t welcoming or safe, then it isn’t welcoming or safe.

Let’s talk about how the operation of the REU sites themselves may or may not be problematic. It’s possible that the people running the programs might not really understand the concerns that I’ve been talking about. They might be interested in diversity in STEM, they might want to support the students that they recruit for their program, but they might just not know the way to go about it or understand the amount of work and resources that are entailed with doing it right. For all of the DEIJ book clubs that started in 2020, there still is a lot of learning that needs to happen. (To be clear, I do not exempt myself from this group, I recognize that l need to learn, grow, and do more.) For example, I’ve seen some summer programs that have created lunch-and-learn programs which ask the REUs with minoritized identities to educate other people in the program about DEIJ issues. I’ve seen how some REU programs operate on a reimbursement basis and not provide students with their funding on time. I’ve seen some how REU programs ignore student complaints about aggressions directed towards them. I’ve seen REU programs make assumptions about financial and social backgrounds of participants to disastrous effect. I’ve also seen REU programs send underprepared students to do fieldwork in areas which are safe for white folks, but perhaps not for anybody else.

One recurring theme in the stories that I’ve heard is that REUs will end up working with grad students who are wonderful mentors, but they are stuck with PIs and/or departments that are problematic. Here’s one example: a student performed very well in their REU and experienced a ton of professional growth. Their mentor, a PhD student, wrote a strong letter of recommendation and handed it over for their advisor to sign, but the PI of the lab refused to sign this particular letter because they thought the student didn’t have the appropriate “background.” Even though this PI spent absolutely no time working with this student whatsoever. (The mentor was clear that this was some combination of racism and elitism on the part of their PI.) In another situation, students have been well supported in their small lab group but uncomfortable in the context of the broader REU cohort, which featured a lot of elitist participants from wealthy backgrounds. I’ve been led to believe that this is the norm at a lot of REU sites. The bottom line is that some REU participants will end up having substantial exposure to people who have less respect for them simply because they come from a different background. That makes for a highly negative REU experience, even if the PI’s lab and mentoring are top notch.

The other day I saw a modified-dobhanzky quote which said, “Nothing in academia makes sense except in the light of prestige.” I think this isn’t wrong. People at prestigious institutions are often blind to elitism in their midst, like fish don’t think about the water they’re swimming in. If you’re trying to understand how to support your REU students that you’ve recruited from MSIs and regional public universities, then you’ve got to come to your understanding through the lens of prestige, if it’s going to make any sense. When you bring students from a low-prestige institution into a high-prestige institution, ignoring this dynamic means that you’re overlooking critical factors that will alter the experience, and also overlooking how people in your own institution will be regarding students coming from other institutions. The first step here is to recognize that these spaces are often filled with elitism (even if you don’t see or feel it, I ask you to trust me, it’s there), and the identity of the institution is wrapped about being able to exclude most people who apply to have access. I’m not saying here how you need to address this or how to move forward, but my gosh you’ve got to recognize that this is a big piece of the dynamic and own that reality. Also, I’ve met faculty at many universities who think that their institution is not prestigious, when it most definitely is. Prestige is relative, and compared to, say, CSU Dominguez Hills, the vast majority of REU sites are at substantially more prestigious institutions. Recognizing this dynamic is foundational. There is a complex interaction between socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and institutional prestige at play here (you know, intersectionality) and if you’re running an REU program that is recruiting minoritized students, this is a space that you need to learn how to navigate.

It is really possible for places like, say, Harvard or Stanford, to operate REU programs that are genuinely inclusive for first-generation low-income students from minioritized ethnic groups who are coming from a low-prestige regional public university? Can these places not transcribe the fundamental DNA of their institution, which is all about keeping people out rather than welcoming them in? I honestly don’t know. Again, I think this is an important question to struggle with even if we don’t have the answer. At both of these institutions (which I drew out of the air for rhetoric purposes simple because they’re known for being exclusionary and prestigious, and not to target anybody I particular) I know some people who I strongly believe in, who I fully and deeply respect, and who are doing their darnedest to build equitable communities that genuinely support people of all backgrounds and identities. Their work is making a difference. I believe they have built small communities that are doing it right. But those communities are islands in a broader space that, frankly, is infused with elitism and the more overt kinds of structural racism. If you’re not Harvard or Stanford but you are a flagship state R1 or some other big research institution, the same dynamic exists, it’s just not as extreme. Even though an REU might have a superlative experience in a particular PI’s laboratory, can this be overcome if the department and the community are a problem? I can’t answer that question, but I do think it’s a question that is worth asking.

If you’re running an REU site, or are thinking about building one, what are you to do with all of this? What can you do to make your REU site a genuinely positive experience for all of your students?

I don’t have a tidy answer for you. This post is not a how-to guide to making your REU a genuinely inclusive experience for your URM recruits. It isn’t that simple. (If you want to lead a manuscript on this topic and work with me, though, drop me a line!)

I have thought about things to consider, and a variety of approaches that I’ve seen that folks have adopted.

-Develop your own priorities and goals with respect to DEIJ. Why are you doing recruitment the way you are, other than to comply with expectations of the funding agency? Recognize that traditional outcome metrics (such as publication rate, percent that go on to doctoral programs, etc.) might actually take a hit if you’re doing recruitment right and you’re serving the student population that most needs to be served. Some of the programs that are making the biggest difference might be the ones with the weakest traditional metrics. If you’re working hard to pump up the numbers for NSF to show that 100% of your REU participants wind up enrolling in PhD programs, think about how that might impact your recruitment? Are you just picking the people who would be successful anyway with or without your help? Or are you working to support the students who actually need the professional development of the REU to go to the next stage in their science career, who might be a bigger “risk” in terms of outcome probabilities?

-Acknowledge that it’s going to take a lot of work and resources. It’s not just about recognizing the nature of the problem and making executive decisions that magically fix them. As a kind of litmus test, think of this conversation that I had last year with a colleague from an MSI: “I’ve given up trying to send my students to REU programs at elite universities. It always ends badly for them. I’m only going to be sending them to REU programs where I’m confident that they’ll have a supportive lab and in a place where they genuinely fit in.” Ask yourself: what kinds of programs, policies, and resources will address the concerns of this person and their students? That’s a starting point — to envision yourself in the shoes of others. And, of course, have conversations with these folks!

-Use an external evaluator (from a different institution, not just a different department or college) who has experience with DEIJ and working with MSIs or regional public universities. Make sure that this evaluation isn’t just targeted for compliance with funders, but also is designed to address your own DEIJ priorities and goals. Keep in mind that a lot of REU participants might be inclined to softpeddle their concerns in evaluations, if they’re done anonymously, because they’re afraid it might bite them back. A professional external evaluator is more likely to get quality feedback from participants that can help you design a better program.

-Make sure that your application process is designed to recruit a student population that will provide a positive environment for all of your participants.

-Get familiar with the literature on best practices for mentored undergraduate research experiences, with a keen eye to culturally responsive practices.

-Give thought to the entire student experience, including safety, housing, travel, money matters, communication with home, etc.

-Identify individuals who students can approach to address their concerns and empower them with the authority and resources to address their concerns. This sounds simple, but when you consider how power flows, I realize that it is not.

-Eliminate linear power hierarchies in your program. You can’t make sure that everybody you’re working with is perfect. But you can make sure that if a student is having an adverse experience, that they have other people who they are actually responsible to who can support them. Bad things happen when the well being of junior scientists is at the whim of single individuals who have power over them.

And well, that’s a start. My purpose in writing this isn’t to tell you how to fix this problem, it was simply to convince you that it’s a problem.

*In this post, I use the term “REU” as a reference to any summer undergraduate research program that bring in a cohort of students that have been recruited from other institutions to conduct original research under the mentorship of scientists at their own institutions. While the acronym technically refers to a huge suite of summer programs like this that are funded by the National Science Foundation, and there are also a lot of other summer undergraduate research programs funded by other agencies with other acronyms, the general term of art in our trade appears to be REU. So while the term REU is technically specific to NSF, keep in mind that lots of other words with specific branding have come into common use, such as kleenex, band-aid, and (as I learned from Otto explaining that he was in not in a Dumpster but merely a trash-co waste disposal unit) dumpster.

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