Dr. Keivan Stassun, a Mexican-American professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University, used his background and understanding of the Latino experience in the U.S. to create the Vanderbilt-Fisk Bridge Program, an initiative which has helped 51 minority students work toward their PhDs since 2004. He recalls how his mother, who grew up in a small village in southern Mexico, immigrated to the country at the age of 19 and informed his outlook on life.
“My mother gained her citizenship when I was a little boy – it was the proudest day of her life,” Dr. Stassun says. “She raised me to believe there is something special about being an American. She imbued in me very strongly the idea of the American dream, that it was my responsibility to aim for it, to achieve it and to help others achieve it.”
Dr. Stassun eventually gained his PhD and realized that Hispanics and African Americans could use help in working towards doctoral degrees.
“At a time when America needs to maintain its global competitive edge the nation is underutilizing incredible talent and human resources represented in nearly a third of the population,” he says.
That’s why Dr. Stassun pushed for the creation of the bridge program, a unique partnering between Vanderbilt University and traditionally African-American Fisk University, which allows students to get their Master’s degree at Fisk and then pursue their doctorate’s at Vanderbilt.
The average number of minority PhD graduates nationwide has been one PhD every 9 years in materials science and one every 11 years in astronomy. The Fisk-Vanderbilt program is now graduating two minority graduates in physics each year and one minority Ph.D. in astronomy each year, which is 10 times the national average for physics and astronomy PhD programs in the nation.
The program bodes well for the continuation of a national trend which has seen the number of Hispanics with doctorates jump 161 percent from 1990 to 2010, almost double the non-Hispanic rate of 90 percent, according to U.S. Census data.
Tommy LeBlanc, who was born in Puerto Rico, was told about the program by Dr. Stassun, who he met while completing his computer science bachelor’s on the island. Dr. Stassun refused to take no for an answer when it came to LeBlanc’s uncertainty and trepidation about coming to the U.S.
“He said, ‘You’re going to come to Nashville.’ I said, ‘No I’m not.’ He said, ‘You’re going to come to Nashville to do astronomy and we’re going to pay for you to do it.’ So I said, ‘Where do I sign up?’”
LeBlanc received grants and financial support from a fellowship which helped him gets a Master’s at Fisk, another at Vanderbilt and his PhD there as well.
“Tommy LeBlanc is the perfect example of why we created this program,” Dr. Stassun says. “He’s the first member of his family to get a college education, let alone a PhD.”
Dr. Stassun says the bridge program opens a door of opportunity that otherwise would not be available. “It was his passion and blood and sweat and tears combined with our commitment and shepherding.”
LeBlanc has advice for Latinos who see an opening in the sciences and are pursuing a PhD but worry about the difficulty of the journey.
“Keep at it,” he says. “There were many times where I wanted to quit and walk away but you need to have the wherewithal to stick with it. Even if today doesn’t look good, talk to people around you and keep pushing forward.”
So what did LeBlanc get for pushing forward and getting his PhD?
He has a job waiting for him – as a senior research and instrument analyst at the Space Telescope Science Institute from a private contractor for NASA on Johns Hopkins campus, where he will be providing support for scientists who are using data from the Hubble space telescope and James Webb telescope.