UTRGV faculty enhance writing skills, peer support at Women of Color writing retreat

Sixteen female faculty members – 13 from UTRGV and three from partnering minority-serving institutions – participated in the ADVANCE Women of Color Writing Retreat, May 22-28 at South Padre Island. Participants, who attended workshops to improve their scholarly writing, are shown here engaged in a writing exercise. (UTRGV Photo by David Pike)

By Gail Fagan 

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, TEXAS – MAY 28, 2016 – A weeklong writing retreat at South Padre Island gave a grateful Dr. Kathryn Perez, an assistant professor biology at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, a rewarding “distraction free environment” to be able to focus on reading, writing and thinking about her research.

“I've made some new connections … and found some people I can learn from. I've gotten a lot of writing and thinking done,” she said.

Perez, a second-year faculty member and the mother of a 10-month-old baby, ended the week with a completed grant proposal, ready to send to the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, to study snails, which are poorly documented in Texas, she said. Perez also worked on a manuscript describing a new species of snail found only at South Padre Island and in coastal Cameron County.

:This retreat helps balance out the extra time I spend in the semester advising and mentoring extra students who meet my demographic profile and serving on extra committees needing diversity in their membership, but with a limited number to choose from,” said Perez, who hopes to participate in future retreats. 

Perez was one of 16 female faculty members – 13 from UTRGV and three from partnering minority-serving institutions – selected to participate in the ADVANCE Women of Color Writing Retreat from May 22 to May 28.

The retreat is made possible by a $749,273, five-year grant received by Jackson State University (JSU) from the National Science Foundation last fall that expanded the retreat, first developed by JSU, to six other partnering institutions, including UTRGV.

The other partnering institutions are Tennessee State University, Tougaloo College, Norfolk State University, Winston Salem State University and the University of the Virgin Islands.

Dr. Loretta A. Moore, JSU vice president for Research and Federal Relations and professor of computer science, is PI of the NSF grant funding the retreats. She created the first retreat, which has been held annually at JSU the past five years.

During the retreat luncheon May 27, Moore said the retreat helped build a community of scholars at her university, with a large number of participants becoming tenured and promoted, and some moving into administrative positions.

“Part of the grant allows for its adaptation. We are delighted to have UTRGV as a partner willing to accept and adapt it,” she said.

Under the expanded program, UTRGV and the University of the Virgin Islands were selected to host the first retreats. Retreat participants, who receive a stipend and travel money, were able to enhance their scholarly writing skills by working on projects that included journal articles, grant proposals, book chapters or research manuscripts that are expected to be completed by the end of the summer. Participants will continue to have writing assignments and access to one-on-one coaching during the remaining 10-week schedule.  

Dr. Kristine Lowe, UTRGV associate vice provost for Faculty Affairs and associate professor of biology, a past retreat attendee at JSU who helped organize the UTRGV retreat and served as one of its writing coaches, said female faculty often fill many roles outside the university, leaving less time for the necessary scholarly productivity expected of faculty in order to succeed and advance.

“They’re mothers, caregivers for parents, they do a lot of service and teaching, so it’s difficult for them to find huge amounts of time to concentrate on writing – which is something they need to do as part of their career,” she said. “So this retreat is about retention, keeping them on track to keep moving upward in academia.”

The NSF ADVANCE program is designed to enhance the recruitment, retention and advancement of all faculty with a special focus on women faculty, particularly underrepresented minorities, in STEM fields. The retreat included faculty from biology, chemistry, psychology, information systems, engineering, computer science and geology.

Trips to the SPI Birding and Nature Center and the UTRGV Coastal Studies Lab were part of a retreat schedule that included large blocks of dedicated writing time, one-on-one coaching and group sessions on topics such as best practices for successful writing, the federal grant review process, how to form networks and collaborations and handle writing teams and planning for success beyond the retreat.

Dr. Gabrielle Smith, an assistant professor of psychology at Tugaloo College, came to the retreat as a first-year faculty member hoping to gain exposure to individuals who have already written manuscripts and grant proposals.

Smith is working on turning her thesis – which looks at how religion, racial identity and community variables interact to predict life satisfaction for a low-income African American community in Alabama – into a published manuscript.

“The retreat forced me to sit down and start doing it,” she said. “I got to see the different perspectives of how people approach the writing and allowed me to explore the best ways I can write and produce when I am not under an advisor, as I was in graduate school.

Dr. Ala Qubbaj, UTRGV vice provost for Faculty Affairs and Diversity, helps oversee UTRGV's ADVANCE grant programs. This partnership and retreat, he said, is part of the university's systematic support of junior and midcareer faculty, particularly in the area of scholarly writing.

“UTRGV is moving to be an emerging research institution, so we need to enhance research and writing. Also, to be successful teachers, faculty need to be successful researchers,” he said. “This retreat gets them into the habit of writing and provides for accountability.” 

Marci.Caltabiano@UTRGV.edu UTRGV Director of News and Internal Communications

Jennifer.McGehee@UTRGV.edu UTRGV Director of Public Relations