Ambassador Program Sees Results


Achieving Results: One Prospective Graduate Student at a Time

By Sally Kral

As the first person in her family to pursue a doctoral degree and a research career, Katherine Herleman did not know exactly what to expect.

Katherine Herleman at Florida International University

During her first year at Cornell as an M.S./Ph.D. student in the field of geological sciences, she found herself “doing a lot of trailblazing” and often relying on informal mentorship from her peers to find her way.

Aaron Joiner, a doctoral student in the field of biochemistry, molecular, and cell biology, also found himself in need of peer guidance during his first year as he “struggled a lot with ‘impostor syndrome.’” 

To encourage prospective students and ease the transition for new graduate students, Herleman and Joiner hope to provide a roadmap for them through one of the Graduate School’s recruitment programs.

“At Cornell, recruiting and retaining the most talented and diverse graduate and professional students is critically important to the overall success of our graduate programs,” said Barbara A. Knuth, senior vice provost and dean of the Graduate School. “Recent initiatives launched through our Recruitment Office are achieving results, one prospective student at a time.”

In 2015, the Graduate School received 614 applications directly connected to recruitment efforts -- nearly one-third of the Graduate School’s total applications from those who self-identified as underrepresented minorities. Applicants who participated in Graduate School recruitment efforts have an acceptance rate of 36 percent;  those in the general applicant pool had an acceptance rate of 22 percent.

Aaron Joiner

One of the most promising recruitment programs, the Graduate Student Ambassador Program, encourages current graduate students to participate in recruiting strong applicants and welcoming them once admitted. 

According to the Graduate School’s director of recruitment, Anitra McCarthy, Ambassadors give graduate students “the opportunity to have ownership over how the graduate community identifies and cultivates relationships with talented prospective students who may not necessarily have put Cornell at the top of their list.” 

Graduate student ambassadors connect with prospective students by sharing their personal experiences directly and honestly. Their diverse backgrounds, which include veterans, students with disabilities, underrepresented minorities, LGBTQ, and first generation college students, help them develop an indispensable connection with prospective students.

Ornella Nelson

Faculty members appreciate the personal touch provided by peers talking to peers. “Prospective students are often more comfortable talking to graduate students. They want the student perspective, not necessarily a faculty member perspective,” said Hening Lin, professor of chemistry and chemical biology.

The program encourages a diverse student body and helps with retention. Ambassadors often develop ongoing relationships and serve as informal mentors, helping prospective students navigate the application and decision-making process,  and acclimating to graduate school.

 “One of my key motivations as an ambassador is to make sure that other students coming to Cornell don’t have to feel lost like I often did during my first year,” Joiner said.

For fellow doctoral student Steve Halaby, “the greatest feeling has been meeting students at a recruitment event who didn’t think they were qualified to join our (graduate) program, keeping in touch with them through the application process and then seeing them here as students.”

To become an ambassador, students can apply to the program directly or be nominated by their field’s director of graduate studies. Ambassadors represent Cornell and their graduate field at recruitment events, conferences, on-campus information sessions, and in some cases, during visits back to their undergraduate alma mater.

Steve Halaby

Since its inception, the program has grown steadily, but for McCarthy, the program’s director, the goal is to have at least one ambassador for each of the Graduate School’s 89 fields of study.

According to Chris Schaffer, associate professor of biomedical engineering, it is a “huge advantage to have students from our program serving as representatives inside and outside the Cornell community.”

Avery August, professor and chair of Immunology, agrees and hopes that the program is another reason prospective students would want to come here.”

Ambassadors are attracted to the program because it gives them the ability to shape priorities and influence decision-making when it comes to attracting diverse students to Cornell and supporting them once they are here.

 “One of the things that I would like to see this program accomplish is to bring some actual change to the diversity of the student body at Cornell,” Joiner said. This is a sentiment shared by Ornella Nelson, a doctoral student in chemistry and chemical biology, who hopes the program can “fulfill its potential to significantly increase diversity at Cornell and develop into what many will see as the gold standard for the recruitment and advancement of underrepresented groups” in the academy.   

For Herleman, smoothing the way for first generation students like her and making “a difficult journey less perilous and more informed” is a key motivation.

Students and faculty who are interested in becoming involved with the Graduate Student Ambassador Program should contact Anitra McCarthy (

​Sally Kral is a communications assistant in the Graduate School.