Advancing Geography Through Diversity Program earns accolades from MSU College of Social Science

February 15, 2024 - Emily Jodway

The original Advancing Geography Through Diversity committee members (L-R): Ashton Shortridge, Dee Jordan, Alan Arbogast, Sharon Ruggles, and Joe Darden
The original Advancing Geography Through Diversity committee members (L-R): Ashton Shortridge, Dee Jordan, Alan Arbogast, Sharon Ruggles, and Joe Darden.

The Advancing Geography Through Diversity Program (AGTDP) is a graduate student recruiting and development program housed in the geography, environment and spatial sciences department of the College of Social Science. This group, which welcomed its first graduate student cohort to campus just five years ago, has been nationally recognized for its efforts toward increasing recruitment and providing support to masters and PhD students from key underrepresented groups. Originally conceptualized by Dr. Dee Jordan when she was just a graduate student, the program has flourished, and Jordan and its founding committee as well as graduate students both past and present are being recognized during Black History Month as true Diversity Torches. 

Jordan has helped pave the way to success for African American and other minority group students ever since she took note of the fact that she was the only Black person in her graduate cohort, back in 2014. She approached then-director of the program Dr. Ashton Shortridge and senior faculty member Joe Darden, suggesting that a greater effort needed to be made to build diversity within the program and to recruit minoritized individuals. 

“Historically, geography has suffered from underrepresentation of certain groups,” Jordan said. “I said [to Darden], We’re not getting any diversity because those people don’t look like they’re represented here. So the first thing we have to do is let people know that they are welcomed here.”

Jordan, Shortridge and Darden then recruited then-chair Dr. Alan Arbogast and graduate secretary Sharon Ruggles, and formed the founding committee for the AGTDP. Jordan took the initiative to get together all geography faculty members in front of the building for the first-ever department ‘family photo.’ The photograph, which was meant to convey diversity in the department that might not otherwise be apparent, went out in the next newsletter and was the first deliberate recruiting effort for the AGTDP. 

The tactic worked, and the history-making cohort of 2018 marked the first time in department history that three US citizen minority graduate students began the graduate program at the same time. Jordan, who is now an instructor in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard, described the importance of this number and the background leading up to this targeted initiative toward diversity. 

“In the 1970s, the first African American woman received her PhD in Geography at Michigan State … in 2019, a Haitian American received her PhD, and in 2020, the second African American woman received hers, and that woman was me.”

The program applies an ‘active recruiting’ strategy for prospective students and an ‘intentional community building’ philosophy for current students. 

“First, we want to reduce the burdens and the barriers to higher education, particularly masters and doctoral degrees, for US citizen minorities,” Jordan explained. “So far to date, we’ve recruited really hard; we’ve been really consistent about our recruitment strategy and recruiting students in threes or more, which brings in a community aspect for them.”

The support continues once students arrive on campus. They receive guaranteed funding and are introduced to the wealth of resources available across the university, learning everything from how to attend sporting events to how to set up a counseling appointment. 

“We are always working on how we can connect our students to broader resources in the community to make their stay here much more productive,” Shortridge said. “It’s not just about the active recruiting, but it’s also about trying to create that environment for our students.” Jordan added, “It’s not enough for me to just have a student admitted. It’s more important that they matriculate, they feel supported, they graduate, and then they come back and they give back, they impart the wisdom of experiences that they’ve had.”

One such student is Jessie Pink, a graduate student researching environmental justice. While still in undergrad at DePaul, he started receiving recruitment materials from Jordan and the program. After talking with her, he appreciated that she was up front about potential instances of discrimination or unfairness that can occur at a Predominately White Institution, while also expressing the ways that the AGTDP is trying to combat those issues. 

“Having a faculty and staff that has a culture where they actually believe in everything they do and say, and aren’t just creating a program to show face, was really important to me,” Pink explained. “Dr. Shortridge, Dr. Darden, Dr. Jordan, all of them embody the message that they have promoted for the program. That really persuaded me to come to Michigan State, and not only that, but to stay at Michigan State, particularly in the geography program.”

Pink describes the environment as welcoming and supportive, especially when the field of geography and doing graduate work in general can at times feel isolating. He is appreciative of the numerous ways that the AGTDP encourages students to get involved on campus and in diversity, equity and inclusion committees, and is available to help with funding for activities like attending conferences and presenting research. 

“If you want to be part of a program that will be transparent, and the faculty and staff want to see you grow, want to support you in your research; if you want to be part of a program where even the students are very engaging, very helpful and it all creates this sense of community, you should join the Advancing Geography Through Diversity Program.”

To date, the program has had four cohorts of scholars. Two masters and three PhD students have graduated with their degrees, and ten students are currently in residence. Prior to the program, the department had awarded nine PhDs total to African American students. “The program has exceeded its stated five-year goals and has inspired geography departments nationwide to build similar programs to achieve disciplinary demographic transformation using the published AGTDP framework,” Jordan said. 

According the Jordan, the proof is in the numbers that the program is succeeding, and its impact is being felt nationally. “I do feel strongly that it’s transforming the entire discipline; it’s having an impact on our students and our graduates, and it’s great to be a part of something like that.”

The overarching goal of the program is not only to develop its own students, but to inspire schools across the country to follow suit and work to enhance diversity in their own departments based on the framework that the AGTDP has developed. “This isn’t something that we’re competitive about,” Shortridge explained. “We want to be sure that other people can learn from our experience and run programs that are going to be much more positive for making our graduate classes, and eventually our discipline, more representative.”

Jordan emphasizes that when diversity blossoms, everyone benefits. Having a wealth of ideas, opinions and perspectives brought to the table can work to solve problems in unique ways and foster new discoveries in the field of geography. 

“When we bring in people from diverse perspectives, when we put them together to help us solve some of these wicked problems … we can really, really make some incredible inroads that haven’t been made before. Representation matters. It’s so important to see yourself reflected on the other side of opportunities, in places you want to see yourself.”