Giving students tools to forge a new path

Higher education can be a springboard to challenging the status quo
Adriana Bankston
June 4, 2021

As an immigrant who came to the U.S. after graduating from high school in an Eastern European country, I experienced the challenges and opportunities that come with getting a higher education in America.

College is a personal journey of self-discovery. I grew up in a culture where families stayed close together and children never ventured too far from home. For many young people, that limited perspective was all they had seen and known. This may be comfortable for some, but I realized it wasn’t for me. I wanted to explore the world, learn new things, see new places and learn about different cultures. I always admired people who were brave enough to do something other than what society expected of them. So, while college was a little intimidating at first, I welcomed the challenge and was excited to pursue an American education. 

I came from a very uniform culture; everyone looked like me. I was excited to move to America so I could open my mind to different ideas. My exposure to various perspectives and cultures during this time helped me appreciate the importance of diversity. Over time, I realized that this new culture fits my personality very well. Going to college in America, I enjoyed learning from students who had come from different parts of the country (or the world) to study here. In this sense, college was a good step forward.

 I faced some challenges. College wasn’t cheap, and paying the resulting debt wasn’t easy. Although language was not a barrier, I experienced periods of isolation, and I struggled to belong. I was a bit unsure if people would like me, but I tried not to take it to heart if they didn’t, and I was happy to be alone. As with any new student, it took me a while to learn my way around the campus and make new friends. I had always been very studious, and that didn’t leave much time for socializing.

 After a couple of years, I became a dormitory resident assistant to make some pocket money. Through the R.A. experience, I realized that I enjoyed helping people and providing advice. This was the first time I had been responsible for a large number of people. I mentored first-year women looking for guidance and organized professional development programs for third-year undergraduates. This experience gave my college years a greater purpose, and I realized it was a privilege to be a leader to these students. 

Graduate school

In graduate school, I studied biology, as one side of my family had done. I learned how to design experiments and manage projects, think critically about data analysis and interpretation, write papers, publish results and present them effectively. Much of this required working in teams. The value of these skills for long-term career development cannot be overstated. The project management and writing skills I learned proved to be invaluable.

Graduate school matured me in many ways. Facing failed experiments again and again helped build my resilience. I had to learn to balance many responsibilities: paying rent, cooking for myself, caring for pets, maintaining relationships and friendships — along with courses to pass and papers to publish.

I reflected on my future. Given all the ups and downs of grad school, I realized the importance of universities offering resources for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers such as mentoring and peer support groups, counseling services and opportunities to engage in activities outside of lab work. I took advantage of some of these opportunities myself. And I still wanted to serve others and volunteer in activities that would help others find their career path. This was an important point as I contemplated my future. 

My educational experiences increased my passion for helping train the next generation of students through institutional advocacy and training programs, and I wanted to work to increase educational opportunities for all. I learned that it’s important to provide an incentive for students to pursue college and graduate education; we need to open their horizons to what’s possible for them. This guided me through my training years. I’ve always recognized the value of higher education as a basis for the future and as a way for students to see what they can become. 

Postdoc and policy

While doing my postdoctoral fellowship, I questioned where I belonged in the system. I realized that, although I had enjoyed the opportunity to pursue a science degree, to some extent my peers in graduate school and postdoc were all the same. We all had similar backgrounds and similar goals. I needed to break the mold and pivot to something that would challenge me and provide another way to affect the world.

During my postdoc years, I organized and built professional development programs. I volunteered to help high school girls looking to go to college through the 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures program at the New York Academy of Sciences. I began reviewing papers for the Journal of Student Research, which publishes research by high school, undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral student authors. I became a mentor for Project SHORT, helping prepare students for graduate school and seek to eliminate the socioeconomic gap for these opportunities.

As I matured, I came to believe that we need to train the next generation to use their knowledge to more broadly influence society. I found what I was looking for by switching to science policy, a field where I could make a difference advancing a cause I care about. This challenged me more than I expected and gave me a way to make an impact, which I had always been looking for. I am able to make a difference for the next generation, and I am in an environment with people from different backgrounds. Every day at work, I learn something new and hear another perspective. Throughout this journey, I’ve become committed to helping early-career researchers who want to make the transition into science policy careers as a way to make an impact in the world.

I am always happy to talk with students or postdocs interested in moving into science policy and discuss the importance of presenting their research to a variety of audiences. The Journal of Science Policy & Governance provides early-career researchers with opportunities to write about policy research in a variety of formats. I have just started leading the journal and hope to provide professional development opportunities to those who submit to the journal as a steppingstone to careers in science policy.

Lessons learned

While I know the value of higher education, I also recognize that institutions should do more to provide financial aid opportunities and educational resources that make students feel welcome and increase their sense of belonging in school. At every level of education, we need a system that is student-centric and that provides opportunities for all to pursue degrees that will allow them to become what they want to be. Institutions should focus on the whole student by not only addressing their professional goals but also their overall health and well-being. 

I benefitted a great deal from my college and graduate education, and I seek to give back every chance I get. That duty was instilled in me from a young age. Experiencing first-hand how far education can take a person has been a privilege — one that I realize not everyone can take advantage of. I hope to continue advocating for a better system of higher education for all and to instill in the next generation its importance and potential for the future.

National Higher Education Day

National Higher Education Day, observed annually on June 6, was founded with the mission to champion the accessibility of higher education. It seeks to spur academic ambition and passion, encourage a “growth mindset” in students, encourage independent learning, educate students about financial aid opportunities, and advocate for academic resources, 

Here’s how you can celebrate this day:

  • Post a photo of your diploma or an educational accomplishment on social media

  • Encourage the next generation to enroll in college and talk to them about your experience

  • Mentor students from all backgrounds who may need it and teach them that education is for all

  • Develop educational resources and advocate for funding opportunities to support educational initiatives

  • Use #NationalHigherEducationDay when sharing on social media

You can find more information and resources here.

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Adriana Bankston

Adriana Bankston is a senior fellow in science policy at the Federation of American Scientists. She is also strategic advisor at the Journal of Science Policy and Governance.

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