President Becerra calls on doctoral fellows to overcome obstacles, diversify academia

President Becerra calls on doctoral fellows to overcome obstacles, diversify academia


“I owe all of my career success to higher education. It is the ‘great equalizer,’ and offered a pathway to the American Dream for this Cuban refugee. That’s why I’m so passionate about increasing higher education access for all – because it can also offer you that same pathway today.”

Marymount University President Irma Becerra served as the keynote speaker for the 37th annual McKnight Doctoral Fellows Meeting and Graduate School Conference on November 12 in Tampa, Fla. Speaking to an audience of hundreds of current doctoral students, Ph.D. graduates and higher education administrators and faculty, she emphasized the critical need for diversity and equity across all levels of academia.

The Florida Education Fund’s McKnight Doctoral Fellowship Program aims to increase the number of Black and Hispanic students earning doctoral degrees, while also producing graduates whose research will address issues impacting local, national and international communities.

According to an American Council on Education report, Black students make up 10.4 percent of master’s degree recipients, while Hispanics make up 7.4 percent – both statistics far lower than the percentage that these racial groups hold among the general population. The numbers are even lower for doctoral and professional degrees – seven percent of recipients are Black, while 6.2 percent are Hispanic.

“For America to succeed and our economy to succeed, our higher education system and the results of that system must reflect who we are as a society,” Dr. Becerra said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated, now more than ever, the importance of increasing access to higher education for members of underprivileged groups so they can earn degrees that secure their future and their family’s future from the effects of the next pandemic, or times of social upheaval in general.”

In her remarks at the Conference, which featured the theme of “On the Cutting Edge: Conducting Research that Serves the Global Community,” Dr. Becerra reflected on her personal background – from her family escaping Cuba when she was eight months old, to growing up in Puerto Rico and eventually becoming the first woman to ever earn a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Florida International University (FIU). She overcame adversity at various turns during her journey, and sought to use her story to inspire her audience – telling them that every difficulty they have overcome in their lives has prepared them to be great leaders.

“I’d like to tell all of the students in the audience, at any level, to never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something,” Dr. Becerra explained. “I can look back on many times in my life where I didn’t fit the mold – as a Hispanic woman, striving for success when there weren’t many role models who looked like me at that time. But I did the work, and focused on preparation and persistence. The same can work for you now – if you are prepared for what’s next and take the steps you need to take, you will be ready and you will be successful.”

“President’s Becerra’s speech was not only inspiring and insightful, but also captivating. Extrapolating best practices learned from personal challenges resonated with the McKnight Fellows because many of them are now having similar experiences,” said Dr. Lawrence Morehouse, President and CEO of the Florida Education Fund. “President Becerra provided them a roadmap for setting goals as well as preserving and determining their own destiny. Her success as a researcher, writer and now a university president demonstrates the range of possibilities they can achieve, even in a male-dominated profession.”

Since 1987, 869 McKnight Fellows have graduated with Ph.D.’s, contributing to a success rate of 89 percent. Doctoral Fellows associated with the Florida Education Fund also complete their Ph.D.’s in an average of 5.5 years, on a pace faster than the national average.

The annual Conference, part of the McKnight support system, promotes scholarship, networking and collaboration by providing opportunities through formal presentations, workshops, book signing sessions and organized receptions for Fellows to meet and interact with accomplished professors, administrators and other scholars.