MERGE Program Gives Students a Glimpse of Grad School at Illinois

September 30, 2016

A MERGE participant asks one of her questions during one of MERGE's sessions.

“What’s it like to be a graduate student at Illinois?”
“What kind of funding is available?”
“How cold does it get here?”
These are some of the questions that the 48 students who participated in the College of Engineering’s MERGE program hoped to get answered during their campus visit on September 30–October 1, 2016. The goal of MERGE (Multicultural Engineering Recruitment for Graduate Education) and the engineering departments who invited these African-American, Latino/a, Native American, and female students for the weekend was that they might experience Illinois—its research, resources, and students—get their questions answered, and ultimately come to graduate school here.

According to Rhonda McElroy, Engineering’s Director of Graduate Programs and MERGE Coordinator, the program received around 119 applications to participate in the two-day event. She worked with all 12 departments in Engineering to decide which students to invite. “These students are very impressive,” McElroy said. “It’s difficult to choose whom we extend an invitation to, because we consider everything from the students’ GPA to their educational goals and research experience.”

MERGE participants enjoying one of the presentations.

Once the students arrived on the Urbana-Champaign campus, they were the ones evaluating whether Illinois would be a good fit for them. MERGE planners worked hard to show the visitors that Illinois faculty, research and funding opportunities, campus resources, and fellow students make it the perfect destination.

On Friday morning, participants were presented with information about the College of Engineering’s scholarly footprint, spirit of innovation, and societal impact by Harry Dankowicz, Associate Dean for Graduate, Online and Professional Programs, and about opportunities and strategies for graduate research by Jennifer Bernhard, Associate Dean for Research. In a particularly well-received presentation by Joseph DeGol, a Computer Science Ph.D. student and former MERGE participant, attendees learned about the advisor-student relationship, the importance of mentoring, and how to combine graduate school with entrepreneurship.

On Saturday, Ken Vickery, Graduate College Director of External Fellowships, described external fellowships available to the participants and strategies for pursuing such funding. Ave Alvarado, Director of the Graduate College’s Office of Educational Equity Programs, informed students of opportunities and resources in Champaign-Urbana and nearby metropolitan areas for recreation, housing, medical care, and other kinds of support. She also shared something else students might appreciate: the cost of living here is noticeably lower than the national average.

Yemeserach Mekonnen from Florida International University in Miami

Yemeserach Mekonnen, who recently completed her master’s degree at Florida International University, hopes to get a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering or systems engineering and came to check out Illinois. Mekonnen was particularly excited about meeting faculty in her two departments of interest, especially faculty who share her research interests. “I wanted to talk to them, get a feel for how they work, how research groups are conducted, what’s the basic requirement of being in their research group, and things like that.”

Jane Agwara, a senior at Tuskegee University in Alabama

Jane Agwaro, originally from Kenya, East Africa, is currently a senior at Tuskegee University in Alabama, and is interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in chemical engineering or biomolecular engineering. “I really want to know how versatile the research projects are here at the U of I. I’m interested in meeting the professors and just seeing how passionate they are in their programs,” she said. “I’m also interested in knowing the funding availability that they can give to students that have the potential to invent and be innovative, and just see the culture, and see how I can adapt and thrive in this program for the next five years of my life…or six or seven!”

McElroy realizes she has a responsibility to help MERGE attendees understand the full picture.
To this end, each MERGE participant was matched up with a current Illinois graduate student ambassador, usually from the prospective student’s preferred department, to learn from their experiences and start to build relationships. “Those one-on-one interactions are very important because students are often more comfortable asking questions of their peers than they would be with a faculty member or administrator.” Also, on Friday evening, the MERGE visitors were treated to bowling, pool, and pizza in the Illini Union Recreation Room, where current graduate students had a chance to get to know them further. Another activity that fostered communication was a panel session on Saturday morning, where the visitors could ask current graduate students any questions they might have about campus life.

“We want them to leave really knowing what life would be like here at Illinois,” McElroy explained, “and to share this experience with their friends and peers.” Even if it gets cold here in the winter, she said, “we want them to envision Illinois as their future graduate school home, where they can thrive and grow.”

Story by Benjamin Taylor, Engineering Media Communications Specialist.
Photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative,

For more related stories, see: 2016, Graduate STEM Outreach:

Mechanical Science and Engineering's MERGE participants.