BIPOC Alumni Scholarship Fund Established at UT Austin iSchool

Update: The fund met its endowment goal of $50,000 by March 31, and will be able to begin awarding scholarships in fall 2023.

In response to a call for increased diversity at the University of Texas (UT) Austin iSchool—and to boost representation and participation among students of color in information sciences fields overall—a group of UT alumni have created an endowed scholarship for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) students. The committee’s goal is to raise a total of $50,000 by March 31 so that it can begin awarding scholarships in fall 2023.

UT Austin iSchool logo

In response to a call for increased diversity at the University of Texas (UT) Austin iSchool—and to boost representation and participation among students of color in information sciences fields overall—a group of UT alumni have created an endowed scholarship for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) students. The committee’s goal is to raise a total of $50,000 by March 31 so that it can begin awarding scholarships in fall 2023.

The initiative began with a petition and list of requests circulated in summer 2020 by several UT iSchool student organizations, including the school’s American Library Association (ALA), Texas Library Association (TLA), and Society of American Archivists chapters and the Student Association of the School of Information (SASI). The list, signed by nearly 100 students, faculty, and alumni, called on iSchool administration to acknowledge the white supremacist origins of library archival and data science fields, and included 11 action items based on feedback gathered from a survey distributed to iSchool students.

The items included mandatory training in anti-racist pedagogy and cultural competency for all teaching assistants and faculty, which has not yet been instituted; a formal investigation of the racial climate in the department and its programs, to be led by a committee of students, staff, and faculty (an initial climate study was conducted with an outside consultant last year); hiring more BIPOC faculty and staff and a year-round diversity officer (searches are in progress, and a Dean for DEI was hired last fall and began at the iSchool in January); increasing awareness of systemic racism and ways to engage in dismantling it through iSchool-funded community events; a town hall in which faculty and administration would discuss their work to create and maintain an anti-racist and inclusive environment, the first of which was held in fall 2020; the creation of a visible land acknowledgment statement and bias reporting tool on the iSchool website and classrooms, which are both in place on the website; increased engagement with alumni and community members working with marginalized communities; the integration of a diverse reading list and anti-racist framework into iSchool courses; conducting a graduate seminar specifically about critical race studies and information science, to be offered every semester (which has not yet been instituted); actively recruiting BIPOC students; and increasing scholarship and funding opportunities specifically for BIPOC students.

As of 2019, 40 percent of enrolled UT students where white, 22 percent were Hispanic and/or Latinx, 4 percent were Black, and fewer than 1 percent were American Indian or Alaska Native. A breakdown specific to the iSchool was not available.

 

TEXAS EXES

While the iSchool does have scholarship funds, UT policy does not allow it to prioritize students by race or other identity markers. However, the iSchool alumni group, Texas Exes, already administers a number of scholarships. Several iSchool graduates saw the circulated list of demands for improving the school’s inclusivity and anti-racist work and felt that the last two items were something they could engage with directly. Alumni circulated a Google form to gauge interest in creating a scholarship, forming and sitting on an advisory council, or simply donating funds, and responses were largely affirmative.

In response to the enthusiasm voiced by graduates and current students—the 2020 student survey indicated that 89.3 percent wanted to expand funding opportunities for BIPOC students—UT iSchool alumni Alison Clemens and Michelle Keba Knecht organized a team to examine how it could a scholarship plan together, fundraise, and design a website. The team, led by Keba Knecht and Clemens in collaboration with alumni Lauren Algee, Hannah Calkins, Martha Horan, Kathi Isham, Dana Sagona, Elliot Williams, and Rachel E. Winston; faculty representative Professor Loriene Roy, whose work centers on Indigenous cultural heritage development; and student representative Emma Hetrick, met in December 2020 to draw up plans for a recurring annual $2,000 scholarship.

After spending much of 2021 on the fund’s administrative setup, the iSchool Alumni Scholarship for BIPOC Students, to be administered by Texas Exes, was ready for a soft fundraising launch in October. “We reached out to people who had already said they were interested and started off the donation process there,” said team member Hannah Calkins, who graduated from UT in 2013. In that first month, the fund raised $8,000.

In recent years, said Hetrick, a Library and Information Science student who will graduate this spring, “there’s greater support for students from marginalized identities to enter into careers that they’re interested in. But so many of those careers, including anything related to information studies, often requires additional schooling. And I think the cost of attendance is often a prohibiting factor to be able to enter those professions. So this kind of bridges that gap.”

UT iSchool administration has been supportive of their efforts and helpful with fundraising activity, said Hetrick. “They have been able to help us figure out the construction and disbursement process for the scholarship. The dean and other administrators have also expressed their support.”

The fund launched officially in December 2021, soliciting donations and pointing potential donors to its website via social media. If they reach their goal of $50,000 by March 31, they will be able to begin awarding scholarships in fall 2023; if not, scholarships will be awarded in 2024. But with only $11,000 to go at press time, there is a good chance the scholarship fund will hit its mark.

“Our original goal was two scholarships per year,” said Calkins. “But we did make sure when we talked to Texas Exes that we can break it up further than that, if we need to, or if we feel it’s appropriate, if there are more applicants who would be qualified.”

Reaction among students, faculty, and alumni has been extremely positive, Hetrick told LJ, tempered with some frustration over the fact that iSchool policies prevent such a scholarship from being administered from within the school. “But I think there’s also appreciation for the alumni who took this on, starting out as a grassroots effort—it’s been a very long process,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of excitement for when we can finally start dispersing funds to students.”

 

AN ONGOING NEED

Local efforts like that of UT iSchool alumni are important additions to the national push for more BIPOC professionals in information and library roles. The Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) administers the E.J. Josey Scholarship Award, unrestricted $2,000 grants given to African American students enrolled in or accepted by ALA-accredited programs, as well as the BCALA Trailblazer’s Award, Literary Awards, and awards sponsored by Demco and Baker & Taylor. “We’d also love to support scholarship opportunities like Spectrum”—ALA’s Spectrum Scholarship Program, which recruits and provides scholarships to American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latinx, Middle Eastern and North African, and/or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander students—”to promote and bring more people of color into the profession,” said BCALA President Shauntee Burns-Simpson.

BCALA has also created a national forum, “Breaking Barriers: The Future of Black Librarianship,” funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which will bring together 50 LIS students, professionals, and educators to help design resources to recruit Black/African American librarians and launch an online, LIS program–independent student group called iBlackCaucus. The association is also currently working to digitize its archives so library and information schools will have ready access to the foundations of Black history in libraries, and to augment mentorship programs for Black LIS students.

This work addresses the need not only for funding but to ensure retention, Burns-Simpson told LJ. “I’m really excited when we hear that there’s money being put towards having more BIPOC people being part of the profession, because it is very important,” she said. “I just want to make sure that it’s not just bringing them in, but we’re also thinking about how we keep them in the profession, so that they don’t feel like when they’re working in the library that this is not a place for them.”

She also cautioned that funders should be careful of the way they publicize the scholarship and recipients—that it’s a fine line between the camaraderie among a group like Spectrum Scholars and visibly singling them out within the iSchool. “Point out that we all are coming to this profession because we have these clear standards and goals,” she suggested. “I was a Spectrum Scholar, and very, very proud of it. I hope [the UT scholarship] has that same messaging.”

In addition, “Having libraries recognize that, yes, they're coming in as a Black person or a Latinx person on staff, and they'll be bringing input skill sets to the team, but not to hand off all diverse programming or want them to look for diverse books for the collections," she said. "That's what we call paying the Black and Brown tax.”

The scholarship is an important example to set for other LIS programs and institutions, Burns-Simpson added. “They’re coming from a great place and this endowment will do good.”

“As alumni, we have privilege of having paying jobs and being established in the community in a way that many students are not yet,” said Calkins. “So we were in a better position to help with [the scholarship]. And we should. We have a responsibility to.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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