Science is for Everyone

Dr. Keith Oden (click image to view larger)

Keith Oden took the helm on the new director of academic diversity position in the college this summer. Oden received his bachelor’s degree from SUNY Albany, his master’s from Brockport College and his doctorate from Georgia State. Oden has been at Tech in different roles since 1985, most recently as the director of diversity of a NSF Science and Technology Center jointly based out of Georgia Tech’s School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. In his new post, Oden is working with undergraduates in the college to increase their opportunities for success, as well as recruiting prospective students.

David: Diversity has become a word with different meanings depending on who’s talking, what does it mean for you?

Keith: In my role, when I speak of diversity, I am referring to several different populations that have been historically underserved in the sciences. Those could be based on gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, disability status or even if a student is the first in the family to go to college. My efforts are aimed at addressing these populations and providing an inclusive environment for these students.

Now what we’ve found, and what the research shows, is that these students are very academically qualified; they’re very smart students. The challenges are sometimes that these types of students come into an environment they are not familiar with and it’s not necessarily geared towards them per se. My role is to assist them in adjusting to the new environment, mentoring them, identifying resources for them, directing them to these resources and connecting them with people who will lead them to success in this environment.

David: What are some of the challenges these students face?

Keith: Research findings indicate that in many cases underserved students have difficulty adjusting to the culture of a majority campus. Research findings also suggest that undergraduate students have a higher retention rate and success rate if they are integrated into the academic and social spheres of the university. In other words, for underserved students, developing a “sense of belonging” with the university is critical to their success.

David: How might the college experience be different for one of these students than it is for a student who’s part of the majority?

Keith: If you are a majority person, for the most part the environment is geared towards you. So someone who has been a minority person has had to adjust to that all the time. Take, for example, two majority male. Mentoring takes place when you come in and talk to your teacher, go out to lunch or tell jokes. But that hasn’t been the case for many females or minority students. It is a little different from that standpoint.

Here is another example where a female student might be in a small research setting and she may say something that may be ignored. A male student says the same thing and it is accepted. So part of what diversity enhancement does is give people a voice who haven’t had a voice before.

David: Georgia Tech is a top university and we’re certainly not hurting for top applicants, so why is it important for us to have these traditionally underserved students succeeding here, can’t we just take them as they come?

Keith: It’s part of Georgia Tech’s mission to provide an academically rigorous education, but we also want to give every student the opportunity to be successful. So that’s what is in it for Georgia Tech. We are interested in bringing in very smart, very sharp students, training them, educating them and having them go out to do great things and be great leaders, engineers, scientists and business executives who increase the workforce of the U.S. in a very positive way.

Georgia Tech reflects the diversity of the U.S. labor market. People are not aware that the demographics for the U.S. are changing. So, if we want to continue to be on the cutting edge as far as technology and leadership in all areas, then it does us well to serve and address this population and provide vehicles for them to be successful.

David: Are you saying that a diverse workforce is important to employers?

Keith: Right, because again whether we are looking at science, engineering, or our other programs they are built on collaboration. A diverse work group or a diverse technological workforce brings on different ideas and brings creative problem solving. So in a certain sense the diversity equates to quality from that standpoint, and that is what Georgia Tech is looking at.

David: So what kinds of activities do you think will help acclimate students to life at top-ranked university?

Keith: Research shows that students who are acclimated socially and academically will do much better and have a higher rate of success. So some of the programs we have established are traditional mentoring programs, peer mentoring programs, study skill development groups, and then address some of the social aspects, professional development and career development.

For example, there is the FOCUS recruitment program, which is a large Institute-wide three-day recruitment program. I have been able to leverage resources where we were able to bring in a large number of highly-qualified underrepresented students in order to introduce them to Tech, in order to try and recruit them for graduate school and summer research programs.

We also have student organizations, like NOBCCE, the National Organization for the Professional Development of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, which is our student chapter we established five years ago. It has been an outstanding program for professional development and retention.

David: How does it do that?

Keith: In the organization we have opportunities for leadership positions, we have opportunities for professional development and we invite speakers. Students attend conferences and present their research. We develop a network of peer mentoring and peer tutoring. For example, we might have a freshman come in and we connect them to a graduate student that can help them with chem or organic chem or biochem, and then help them get acclimated to the new environment. Then we also help connect them to professionals in the area, whether they are looking for career opportunities when they graduate or summer internships.

David: So you’re talking about all of those things that students need to do to be successful besides just making good grades — knowing how to socialize and navigate that so they can make the most of their opportunities.

Keith: Right and you know, for example, how do you join a study group? How do you fit in? The worst things for students to do when they come to Georgia Tech is to isolate themselves, because that starts a spiral downward of leaving the institution and that’s what we don’t want. We want them to get in and be integrated. And all students are different, but we want students to find vehicles that can help them and lead to their success and help them as far as integrating into a group of researchers and an academic collegial community that will help them with their development.

David: So how do you measure success?

Keith: We do pre and post surveys and we use the same standard metrics that we do with some of our programs.

David: What is the most important thing you want undergraduate students to know about the area that you work in?

Keith: I think all students should understand that diversity and inclusion are an important aspect in college life and that everyone benefits from it; other students become aware of other students and that we are not just one homogenous group. Education is a collaborative journey, so as you become more aware of the other, it leads to better team building and better results.

David: So let’s say I am a freshman. What would your advice to me be? What should I do to make the most of my time at Tech?

Keith: I would encourage you to be engaged. Your priority would be academics, but strive to be a well-rounded student. Try to participate in things that will develop you as a leader and develop some of your personal interests. Academically, stay engaged, join some study groups, take a look at your study skills and your effectiveness. All these things you can do to become a successful student, that’s the first thing you want to look at. And don’t look at things from a deficit model. Ask yourself, “What can I do to increase my opportunities for success? What can I do to develop myself to be a well rounded student and a leader?”

David: Why is it important to be well rounded?

Keith: Because it balances you. You also have to be socially adjusted, you have to be able to communicate your ideas, because it helps you get along with others in life. You can be a great scientist, a great engineer, a great business person, but if you can’t communicate your ideas to others -- it will be detrimental. If you can’t work with others, you can’t play nice in the sandbox, that’s going to be a challenge. Because that is one of the key aspects moving through life. You are smart, you are brilliant; but are you a good team member and can you convey your ideas and communicate?