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GO-MAP and interdisciplinary students named to the Husky 100

Mollie McDonnell
Erin Lee

A big congratulations to Erin Lee and Mollie McDonnell, two students within the Graduate School’s programs who were named to the Husky 100 for 2020. They were two of 100 students honored across UW’s three campuses this year for their work building inclusive communities. Erin is a Graduate Staff Assistant for GO-MAP,* a Graduate School office that supports students of underrepresented backgrounds through their graduate education. Erin is also earning a Master of Public Health, where she works to eliminate racial disparities in health care, especially for women of color. Mollie is a doctoral student in Molecular and Cellular Biology, one of the Graduate School’s Interdisciplinary Programs. Mollie has been an advocate for inclusivity at Fred Hutch, working as a supportive mentor for young scientists. We’re so proud of the dedication and care Erin and Mollie bring to higher education and their communities!

*GO-MAP was the name of a program that is now called GSEE, the Office of Graduate Student Equity & Excellence. Learn more.

Michelle (Mimi) Acosta, Ph.D.

Department of Psychology, 1980-1989

Every year in the Department of Psychology, there was one graduate student of color who was charged with supporting students of color within the program. This official departmental position was funded by a fellowship from GO-MAP*. I was one of the graduate students who held this position in the 1980’s. 

The support position and resulting community were extremely effective. Students of color in our department never felt like that they were on their own. The tight community of students of color smoothed new ethnic students’ entry into graduate school and the field of psychology.  There were always more advanced students ready to answer questions and provide direction and encouragement to incoming and intermediate-level students. The willingness of more advanced students to advise, inform and socialize with new and mid-level students was a stepping stone to success for so many of us. This position and organization stewarded a network of students of color who became role models for others in navigating academics and finishing our degrees. I am grateful for all the students of color who shared their strengths and encouraged us, teaching us to pass on this legacy of support. 

Among its responsibilities, this network of students of color was also involved in the admissions process, reviewing files of prospective students of color. We provided input to faculty on the department admissions committee. The group of students of color active in the mid-80’s also played a small role in bringing Dr. Ana Mari Cauce (now UW president) to the Department of Psychology as faculty. We were lucky enough to meet and dine with Dr. Cauce when she came to the UW for her initial interviews. I remember my initial impression of Dr. Cause as highly intelligent and quick-witted, with an infectious laugh.

After I graduated, I served as faculty in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, focused on child assessment in the clinic now known as the Center on Human Development and Disability. I also worked in private practice for a number of years, and taught briefly at Antioch University in the master of psychology program.

On a personal note, after joining the Department of Psychology, Dr. Cauce kindly stepped in to take over as my dissertation advisor when my original professor departed. At the end of my dissertation defense, I informed Ana that I would be skipping graduation and would just pick up my diploma from the Registrar. Ana looked at me, and said she understood why I would feel that way, but insisted skipping graduation was something I would regret later. She mentioned that she had not put on doctoral robes for her own graduation, and then made me an offer. Ana said that if I decided to go through graduation, she would also march in her doctoral robes with the faculty. This was something we could celebrate together. I still appreciate the kindness of her awareness and assistance.

*This story is part of a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of GO-MAP, now known as GSEE. Learn more.

Jason Wooden, Ph.D.

Department of Genetics, 1996

Wooden works in the Seattle area and is a full-time entrepreneur, with a number of projects in health and biomedical sciences. Wooden recalls how GO-MAP* functions helped him get out of the lab and make connections across disciplines. 

Graduate school can be very arduous for people. It can be a long road, with a lot of ups and downs.

Cynthia and the others in the GO-MAP office were always there to support you if there was an issue you were dealing with. I remember when I received my funding both from the Ford Foundation or the UNCS Burke Science Initiative, GO-MAP did all this work behind the scenes to make things as seamless as possible. That way, I could focus on my research and not the paperwork. 

GO-MAP had some really good functions where they would invite all of the minority graduate students. At that time, in my department I was the only person of color. So it was a great way to meet all of the other graduate students of color who you normally wouldn’t see because you were all scattered. 

At these receptions we’d hang out, make friends, and have conversations if there were issues people were struggling with. There, students from very different disciplines were able to connect as we’re going through our graduate school experience and encourage each other through our everyday struggles. 

Sometimes there would be very deep discussions about topics outside of school. I still remember this conversation I had with someone from Astronomy about their disciplines and practices in their discipline versus Genetics. That’s one conversation you remember forever. 

We would exchange information and some of us would go out and do things after those events. People would reach out and say, hey I’m hosting a party, or we’re going out to this place, and you should come along. It was good to get you out of the books or your lab. To add some fun to the mix and help you stay grounded. 

I would always look forward to those receptions – to seeing Cynthia Morales and other UW administrators. Some of those friendships I made at GO-MAP receptions, I still have to this day. 

*This story is part of a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of GO-MAP, now known as GSEE. Learn more.

Tyrone Caldwell Howard, Ph.D.

College of Education, 1998

Dr. Howard came to the UW after teaching in elementary school classrooms in Compton, California. Advised by Professor James Banks (the “Father of Multicultural Education), Howard studied multicultural education, academic achievement among African Americans, and equity in the classroom. Howard has continued onto an impressive career as a professor of education at University of California – Los Angeles, where he continues to study race and equity in K-12 education. At UCLA, Howard is the former associate dean of the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and the founder and executive director of the Black Male Institute. He is frequently asked to present his work across the country and globe. In 2019, Howard was honored with the College of Education’s 2019 Distinguished Graduate Award. We spoke with Howard about how GO-MAP* (then known as the Minority Education Division) enhanced his graduate school experience at the UW, and the program’s lasting influence on his career. 

For me, the Minority Education Division was about family and about community as well as financial support. From a financial standpoint, I was what might be called now a non-traditional student. I had a wife and two kids when I started my graduate degree. 

I had funding through the School of Education but it was not enough. I didn’t want to work three, four or five jobs outside of the UW to make ends meet. So I would go to Cynthia and talk to her about the financial challenges we were facing, and Cynthia would find something. MED was a huge financial support in ways I could not have envisioned when I started graduate school. 

At one point I approached Cynthia because it was a real tight squeeze for my family and I to make ends meet. I was really hesitating to talk to her, because I didn’t know what she would say. Before I met with her, I put together five talking points on the subject. I planned points and counterpoints; I had all these things prepared to say if she said no. 

I went in nervous to our meeting, prepared to hear no. As you probably know, Cynthia has such a calm demeanor. As soon as I brought up my first point, she said yes. She said, I’ll make it happen, and she made it seem like it was so easy. 

That conversation was life changing. It was so important to know that she got it and she made it happen. All the talking points I had prepared, I didn’t have to go through because she was so responsive. 

When I was looking at graduate programs and I visited the UW, there was a group of master’s students in the College of Education who were incredibly helpful. Patricia Halagao, Cynthia Denning Del Rosario, Jim Rodriguez, and Andre Branch. They said, there’s a space for people of color here at the UW. They told me it was a good place to consider because my work – on racial and ethnic diversity in the classroom – would be supported here. It meant a lot to hear current graduate students say that they felt supported on campus. 

As a graduate student, you recognize that the school – for me, both the College of Education and the UW – were predominantly white. If you didn’t find a community of like-minded people, you could feel very isolated and very disconnected. As a person of color, you have to create your own community within the larger community by finding pockets of people who share the same experiences as you. 

MED provided a space where I saw other students of color. With MED students, I didn’t feel like I was alone, and I had people who could relate to being the only or one of the few people of color in their programs. 

What was helpful for me was to come into graduate school with a small group of people who were part of the Office of Minority Recruitment and Retention. That became my community. The folks I worked with in my department knew about the Minority Education Division, Mosaic and other organizations to plug into to find community, so they helped me seek out those opportunities. 

It worked for me, but if you didn’t know how to find that community, you would be on the outside looking in. Now there are more intentional steps and approaches so incoming students of color can be introduced to these units and plugged into communities of color, if they desire to be. 

My involvement with MED has been huge for my career. As a grad student, it was good to be in a place where people helped you to sharpen your ideas and pushed you – always with kindness – to sharpen your methods.

When you’re a graduate student, you’re insecure as a scholar. For me, having people who were part of the UW community who supported my ideas – conceptually and intellectually – allowed me to recognize the importance of my work. Professors such as Jim Banks, Gevena Gay, and Ed Taylor were invaluable and incredibly supportive.

A lot of the work I do now is still tied to equity and inclusion. I wouldn’t be doing this work if I hadn’t had the support I had at the UW. This support let me know that my work matters to the community. I’m forever indebted to the community because of that. 

I hope the university does all it can do to support efforts like GO-MAP. Universities say they value diversity and want it on campus but often offices like GO-MAP are on tight budgets and not receiving the support and recognition they deserve. Initiatives like GO-MAP are often the heartbeats of diversity, the backbone of inclusion and places where students of color can truly feel supported and comfortable. And we should support them accordingly. 

*This story is part of a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of GO-MAP, now known as GSEE. Learn more.

Jessica Yellin, Ph.D.

Mechanical Engineering
BSME – 1989
MSME – 1996
Ph.D. – 2004

For Jessica Yellin, Ph.D., ‘04, GO-MAP* provided emotional support and community as she tackled a challenging graduate school program and cared for her family. 

Yellin describes herself as “a local yocal and kind of a lifer.” Having grown up in the Seattle area, she earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. at the University of Washington in Mechanical Engineering. She was recruited to UW’s engineering department as a senior in high school. 

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Jessica was unsure of her next steps. Several of her family members were sick or injured, and she did not want to leave the area. After several years of working odd jobs and feeling frustrated, her mother persuaded her to return to graduate school at the UW. 

Coming from a low-resourced background that lacked informational support about academia, Jessica says GO-MAP and other programs focused on students of color connected her with resources she might have otherwise missed. 

“Community forums like GO-MAP are key because you get people who recognize that if you’re the first person in your family to go to college, you might not realize the politics or the intricacies of how academia works. If you have folks like the GO-MAP staff who are willing to say: ‘Here’s what you need to do,’ that makes all the difference,” she says. 

The Engineering Department was predominantly white and male, Jessica says – as most Engineering departments in the country were. In 2004, Jessica was one of two Hispanic women across the country to earn a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering. She found it difficult at times to be herself in the department. 

“I’m relatively light-skinned, I’m biracial, and I’m ashamed to say that a lot of times I choose to pass because it’s simplest,” she says. 

When Jessica took time away from her studies to care for her family, some faculty and peers questioned her decision. 

With GO-MAP and other campus communities of color, including the UW GenOM Project as well as the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) and Minority Scholars Engineering Program, Jessica felt comfortable to be herself. 

Her peers provided her “a community where it’s not considered weird to take time off to support your family,” Jessica says. “When I spoke to my friends who were people of color, they would say, “Of course you have to take time off. These are the people who raised you.” 

When several of Jessica’s family members passed away around the same time and Jessica needed social support, she found the GO-MAP get-togethers were a solace. There, she met several Latinx students from the M.D./Ph.D. program, and they started an informal peer mentorship group. 

A mentor to many graduate students of color herself, Jessica often referred her mentees to Cynthia Morales with questions or concerns. “I always thought of her as a good resource,” she says. 

Since 2011, Jessica has been on disability retirement from the University of Washington. She credits Lisa Peterson from UW GenOM project with helping her through this difficult transition. Jessica continues to mentor students as a volunteer homestay host with the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students (FIUTS).

*This story is part of a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of GO-MAP, now known as GSEE. Learn more.

Morris Johnson, Ph.D.

School of Environmental & Forest Services, 2008

“I’m quite sure if it wasn’t for GO-MAP*, I wouldn’t be in my position now,” says Morris Johnson, a research fire ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service and a UW affiliate professor. “I would not have gone to graduate school, would not have gotten the Gates Millennium Scholarship to continue my studies, I would not be in Seattle.” 

Johnson hails from the small town of Waterproof, Louisiana. Military service was the expectation for Johnson and most of his classmates. But at the encouragement of his aunt, he enrolled at Southern Louisiana University, in a new field called Urban Forestry. 

In Johnson’s third year, he took an internship with the Forest Service which brought him to the Pacific Northwest. After returning to the internship for a second year, Johnson was offered a job as a silviculturist. 

Johnson planned to be done with school. “Why would I go to graduate school when I have a paid, full-time job?” he asked. Yet at the encouragement of one of his mentors, he took a tour at the University of Washington in Seattle. When he learned that he could receive funding for graduate school, he decided to apply. He was accepted to the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and took a leave of absence from work. 

GO-MAP provided two quarters of financial support in Johnson’s first year. That funding, he says, was critical. “I wouldn’t have done graduate school without that funding,” he says. 

The transition to graduate school was not easy, Johnson says. For one thing, the workload was way more intense. “You’re only taking two classes, but both of those classes are like a full-time job,” Johnson says. 

And the University of Washington was very different from Southern, a historically black college. 

“At the UW you’re surrounded by a lot more resources, but also a lot of classmates who came from resources you didn’t have,” he says. “You have to work a lot harder to compete in university and in graduate school.” 

For Johnson, stopping by the GO-MAP office became part of his routine. “I used to go there all the time,” he says. “At the end of the day, or in between classes, I would go there and chit-chat with Cynthia (Morales) about anything. Having someone to go to is always nice on a campus like this.”

“Cynthia and Julius (Debro, associate dean of the Graduate School), were like my GO-MAP parents,” Johnson says. Johnson attended all of the GO-MAP functions to make connections with other people of color, and also recalls connecting with Emil Pitre, another important figure in the GO-MAP community, at events. On several occasions, Johnson was asked to tell his story at prospective student days. 

Johnson recalls how GO-MAP helped make his time in graduate school as seamless as possible when it came to funding and making connections. “They’re like the wizard from the Wizard of Oz,” he says, “back there making sure everything works out right.”

*This story is part of a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of GO-MAP, now known as GSEE. Learn more.

Audra Gray-Dowdy, M.Ed., Ph.D.

College of Education
M.Ed. – 1999
Ph.D. – 2011

As a student, Audra Gray-Dowdy formed an informal network of peers of color to help her navigate graduate school. GO-MAP* helped to formalize these networks and expand their reach beyond her department. 

Through conversations in the GO-MAP office and GO-MAP social events, Gray-Dowdy made connections that showed her “people who look like me do this and finish this process, and I can, too.”

“We really got to know each other well through GO-MAP,” she adds. “There were a lot of real, authentic friendships that came out of GO-MAP and grew from there.” 

For Gray-Dowdy, it was significant that the Graduate School encourages students to build community. When she was a student, and now as an alumni, “I can walk into the Grad School and it’s not like I’m walking into a business office that’s inaccessible to me,” she says. “GO-MAP made the Graduate School feel like home, made me feel like I belonged. Sure it’s a business office but it’s a place where people are welcoming and personable – what other universities have that?” 

After Gray-Dowdy graduated with her master’s, she taught fifth grade in the Compton Unified District in California for several years. When she returned to UW for her Ph.D., she reconnected with the GO-MAP family.

Inspired by the networks of support they received from GO-MAP, Gray-Dowdy and several women of color in Education established a thesis and dissertation writing group. The members met regularly to talk about their research. They helped to hold each other accountable, while also receiving feedback on their research. 

As a Ph.D. student, Gray-Dowdy approached Cynthia Morales (then assistant director) when she was seeking funding or new opportunities. “Just to have her accept me, hear me out, and tell me she would keep her eyes and ears open – it was very comforting to know that,” Gray-Dowdy says. If I hadn’t known her as a grad student, I would have been struggling,” she adds. 

At one point, Gray-Dowdy approached Cynthia because her graduate appointment did not run through the summer and she was seeking work. She earned an appointment to work for GO-MAP during the summer, providing her funding for the summer months. 

As a Graduate Staff Assistant in the summer of ‘00, Gray-Dowdy played an important role in organizing the first Getting Connected – an annual fall event to help graduate students of color meet. She worked alongside Johnella Butler (then director) and Morales to help with the planning for the event. She created brochures and helped put together the event, including choosing the location and ordering the food, 

“I feel a sense of honor when Cynthia says I was part of helping to create Getting Connected, even though its an overstatement,” Gray-Dowdy says. 

Gray-Dowdy contributed to the GO-MAP community in other ways, as well – by mentoring new students of color through the Diversity Ambassadors program.

“I wanted to give all the wisdom I had earned back to people,” she says, adding that “any time GO-MAP asked myself or my peers to contribute, the answer was always yes because we knew connecting students of color to GO-MAP would be a lifesaver for (those students). We didn’t need to be convinced, because we already felt the love from GO-MAP.” 

It’s true, though, that GO-MAP wasn’t just about spreading love. “The goal was for us students of color to get our degrees in a way that still feeds our souls,” Gray-Dowdy says. “This might look like working in communities that are unnoticed, communities we represent, and doing work we feel passionate about. As a student, you feel really feel that GO-MAP is investing in you because they know you’re going to take your degrees and make an impact in your field, and make an impact in your community.” 

After walking with her Ph.D. in 2011, Gray-Dowdy joined the faculty at East Tennessee State University. She is now the Dean of Students at Federal Way Public Schools.

*This story is part of a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of GO-MAP, now known as GSEE. Learn more.

Naomi Campa, M.A., Ph.D.

Department of Classics, 2014

I received a GO-MAP* supplemental grant and later a dissertation fellowship during my time at UW. The fellowship was quite unexpected for me and came at a moment when I was debating whether I would be able to finish my dissertation at all. 

The award had the practical effect of making it financially possible for me to work on my dissertation, but it moreover felt like a real vote of confidence; I felt flattered that my department had nominated me for the award and incredibly honored to have received it. I was working on my dissertation off campus, and the Skype meetings with the rest of the fellows helped me focus on the task at hand and feel connected during the isolated process of dissertation writing. GO-MAP had a crucial role in seeing me to the finish, which I am proud to report I reached in June 2014.

I am now a Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics at Kenyon College. I have a few articles and book reviews published and am working on a monograph developed from my dissertation. 

*This story is part of a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of GO-MAP, now known as GSEE. Learn more.

Steve Sawada, MPA ’17, shares his GO-MAP story

Steve Sawada, second from left, strikes a pose with GO-MAP colleagues.

I had the special pleasure of serving as a GO-MAP* Graduate Staff Assistant (GSA) for the two years I attended the Evans School, 2015–17. As a non-traditional student with 15 years separating my undergraduate and graduate education, I was beset with imposter syndrome, and GO-MAP provided me the exact levels of encouragement and mentorship I needed to thrive and succeed. Our staff meetings were great instances of this as Cynthia (Morales) would regularly ask me for my opinions if she noticed I was quiet or reserved — a function of my own self-doubt. This was further exemplified in her support of my vision for a campus-wide racial justice caucus and organizing project where over 100 students gathered to process the police killing of Black people in 2016.

My final year with GO-MAP coincided with the beginning of the political and social tumult we face today, which created a precarious campus climate for students of color, especially for Black, Latinx, immigrant and refugee students. I will never forget the day after the election. We all came into the office around the same time, dour and weary, and went around the room unpacking our feelings and analyses of what happened and what lay ahead. The commonality in our thoughts was the need to pull together as a community to support students and each other. So, we set out some coffee and cookies and consulted with nearly a dozen students about their feelings and concerns as they trickled into the office looking for community to process with.

The GO-MAP staff — Cynthia, Vanessa, Anthony, Carolyn — worked earnestly to support us students through the vulnerabilities and challenges we faced during this period with the kind of care and empathy one extends to a family member. I will forever be grateful, and feel indebted, to the staff and students of GO-MAP. Thank you so much for all your hard work and compassion. Happy 50th Anniversary!

*GO-MAP was the name of a program that is now called GSEE: the Office of Graduate Student Equity & Excellence