African American Doctoral Scholars Initiative Creates Support System for Black PhDs

by Reagan Jackson

“What would it be like if every institution of higher education put in their mission statements that they were anti-racist?” asked Dr. Deniece Dortch, an Assistant Professor at George Washington University, in a recent interview about her work with black doctoral students.As the recipient of 18 years of education in predominantly white institutions from Kindergarten through my Master’s degree, this is one question I haven’t heard posed or seen the answer to. I don’t know if we will in my lifetime. But in the grand tradition and lineage of survivors of racialized trauma, there are people out there creating systems and programs to circumnavigate the challenges and Dr. Dortch is one of them.

Dortch is the founder of the African American Doctoral Scholars Initiative, an innovative program piloted at the University of Utah that created a multidisciplinary cohort of black doctoral students to support one another through their Ph.D. process.

For the past 20 years, black doctoral graduation rates have stagnated at 6 percent and Dortch wants this to change.

“My work specifically looks at the barriers to success for African American students in particular, broadly students of color, but African Americans in particular. I’m interested in all of their barriers to success,” says Dortch citing a long list from the scarcity of financial resources to psychological warfare. “A part of that sort of warfare is what I’d say is the perpetuation of psychological violence, tokenism, fear, and isolation.”

Dortch defines psychological violence as any treatment which diminishes a sense of identity, efficacy, and self-worth including racialized insults, assaults, invalidations.

“I think it’s all of our responsibility as educators to care about the holistic well being of our students. It’s our responsibility to lessen the violence that we experience,” said Dortch. “I believe that racism is omnipresent. I don’t believe it’s going anywhere, but I do believe that there are things that we can do to combat the violence that they are experiencing.”

Dortch grew up in Michigan where she attended school in a rural environment until she was 13 and moved from Pullman to the city of Holland, Michigan. “My entire upbringing is in predominantly white institutions,” said Dortch. She attended school for a total of 26 years, completing her BA at Eastern Michigan, her first MA at SIT Graduate Institute in Vermont and her second MA at Columbia University before getting her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

“Personally I have a pretty good understanding of what it means to be educated in this country. And then I continue to do research around barriers to student success.”

As a part of her research Dortch conducted a study of 23 African American doctoral students attending a large predominantly white research institution in the Midwest. Her findings concluded that they were experiencing psychological warfare. Her attention turned to the behaviors that students have exhibited that are both adaptive and maladaptive from seeking out peer support to isolating themselves.

What students are facing beyond tokenism, microaggression and isolation is the fact that these institutions were not designed with black people in mind. “It was not designed for our success,” explained Dortch. “And when we are successful in this environment it’s almost as if it’s an oppositional stance. It’s a method of resistance.”

But what happens when students fail? “What often happens is that we’ll look at token African Americans right, we’ll look at a couple black people here and there who have been successful despite the violence that they’ve experienced and then we will blanketly blame other students who have not managed to be successful because they have not learned to cope with violence,” said Dortch.

“I think that there needs to be more studies on the models that exist where less violence is occurring as opposed to having these sort of deficit frameworks as if because you’re black inherently you can’t do well, or inherently its your fault that you’re coming from a particular environment, or have a particular socioeconomic status without fully examining the history around racism in this country and how it impacts systemically in all aspects of our lives.”

Dortch was recruited to the University of Utah by four African American faculty members, Lawrence Parker, William Smith, Paula Smith and Karen Johnson in order to create a program specifically for African American doctoral students. “I decided to use the learnings that I had gained from my own research to try to create an intervention to essentially address students’ socialization into the academy, their sense of belonging and their efficacy.”

She named it the African American Doctoral Scholars Initiative and worked with the committee of professors who brought her to Utah to co-create the mission.  It began with a cohort of ten students, five in STEM fields and five in humanities. She wanted it to be interdisciplinary. They formed their own writing groups and met weekly.

Dortch sought funding for the university to provide graduate students with $5,000 stipends to conduct their research. “What people don’t realize is that doctoral studies are expensive,” said Dortch. “Essentially for many students, they have to fund their individual research. If they’re doing data collection they have to pay for that, if they’re transcribing data, if they are traveling to do their own research, they have to pay for that out of their own pockets and it gets to be very, very costly.”

Dortch matched each member of the cohort with a mentor in alignment with their career trajectories. She also wanted to make sure they were provided with training on how to teach and how to write grants to further their research. Though these are invaluable skills for any student in the academy, they aren’t always accessible.

“I specifically chose students who cared about black people. Because as my friend Ivory Toldson says ‘black people need black people who care about black people’,” said Dortch. “The committee and I, we made sure that we chose students who demonstrated leadership around having some involvement with black people or their research was on black people or there was some indication in their application that their goal was to uplift their community in some kind of way.”

While the program is still too new to have any measurable outcomes yet, Dortch is optimistic about its potential impact. “I think that if you were to institute an African American Doctoral Scholars Initiative at every single institution across this country it would put in place a mechanism in which you are trying to support students holistically,said Dortch. “So not only is it acknowledging the problem and saying hey we want to do something about it and we care about you, but it also signals to other ethnic groups that this what we’re doing and if this goes well we will do that for you too.”

While instituting these programs won’t change racism, they could lead to students having a better experience. Will any of the universities here in Seattle be next to pilot this kind of program? Are we ready to take anti-racism from theory into practice?

Reagan Jackson is a writer, artist, activist, international educator and award-winning journalist. She’s been a regular contributor to the Seattle Globalist since 2013 and the South Seattle Emerald since 2014. Her self-published works include two children’s books (Coco LaSwish: A Fish from a Different Rainbow and Coco LaSwish: When Rainbows Go Blue) and three collections of poetry (God, Hair, Love, and America, Love and Guatemala, and Summoning Unicorns). To find out more check her out at

Featured image: Dr. Deniece Dortch (photo courtesy of  Dr. Deniece Dortch)