Why is the Provost Diversity Fellowship not open to all students?

Date: May 2020


Dear deans,

I hope you are safe and healthy – and your families too.

And thank you for this opportunity of expressing our concerns directly to you.

As I progress in my Ph.D. program, I recently started to explore options for the future and I came across the Provost Diversity Fellowship which would be a very interesting opportunity for me: I am a woman coming from an underdeveloped country. 

To my surprise and to the surprise of many Cornell students and professors to whom I spoke, this fellowship is only opened for U.S. citizens or permanent residents. 

Reading about the eligibility criteria made me think how ironic they are. According to Cornell numbers, 51% of graduate students are international students, which means that more than half of Cornell’s student population is not eligible to apply to this fellowship.

This is not very diverse. As a student in the humanities whose work addresses individual and structural inequalities, I cannot be more disappointed. 

Travel grants (of which Cornell offers several) are not as prestigious as fellowships (and we need those for the job market, unfortunately) and they do not offer as much financial support. Canadian and European students as well as students from other developed countries (such as Japan, Australia, etc.) are eligible to apply to fellowships and grants from their own countries but students from underdeveloped countries have extremely restricted funding opportunities. Cornell has the Africa Fund, which is a wonderful initiative, but restricted to African students. What about non-African students? What do we do? 

If we try to find funding opportunities outside Cornell the problem remains: Few fellowships offer support to non-American citizens and when they do, these same citizens can also apply so the problem of “diversifying” opportunities still remains. What do these American citizens have that I do not? A piece of paper signed by the Department of State Travel should not be a selection criteria for supporting good research. 

I urge Cornell to think about opening the Provost Diversity Fellowship to all students. Receiving support from your institution when the situation “out there” is difficult can be vital for some students, if not for the majority of them.

I hope that “diversity” means more than a nice sounding word.

I look forward to hearing back from you.


Concerned International Scholar


Dear Concerned International Scholar,

Thank you for reaching out with your question regarding the focus of the Provost Diversity Fellowships. This fellowship program is one of the many initiatives that the Graduate School provides to support a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.

Many of the Graduate School’s initiatives focused on the advancement of diversity, inclusion, access, and equity are explicitly inclusive of our international scholars who contribute significantly to our graduate community. Other initiatives, such as the Provost Diversity Fellowship, focus specifically on reducing disparities in graduate education that stem from structural and historical barriers in the U.S. higher education system. Consequently, this particular fellowship program maintains a focus on domestic students (including those holding DACA status) from backgrounds and experiences most severely underrepresented in academia. 

The Provost Diversity Fellowship program funds students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents, from a broad range of identities and experiences historically marginalized and/or underrepresented within graduate education at Cornell. It includes those who have overcome personal hardship or other barriers toward the completion of their doctoral studies, first-generation college students, those who identify as Black/African American, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, Native Pacific Islander, and/or Hispanic/Latinx, single parents, and others. For example, although in aggregate members of these racial and ethnic groups make up almost a third of the U.S. population, they represent only just over 16% of our doctoral population at Cornell. Similar comparisons could be made for these other identities as well, relative to the overall U.S. population. As the demographics of the U.S. become increasingly diverse, it remains evermore critical for us to invest in efforts that will contribute to those earning doctorates being more reflective and representative of our greater U.S. population. 

Though we do not presently have fellowship funds dedicated explicitly to international scholars from less developed countries, we are sensitive to the pervasive global inequalities that can create barriers of access to graduate education and other opportunities by some of our international scholars. Consequently, over the last several years, the Graduate School has expanded the reach of several of initiatives focused on aspects of diversity, inclusion, access, and equity to be explicitly inclusive of international scholars. As it relates to funding, the Graduate School’s highest fundraising priority is expanding the fellowship support that is accessible to all doctoral students, domestic and international. Especially under our current circumstances, it is also a Graduate School priority to work with graduate fields on opportunities to expand the funding support available to all continuing doctoral students.

I hope this additional information is helpful to you and I welcome you to be in touch if I can serve as a source of support as you continue to progress in your graduate studies.

Warm Regards,


Sara Xayarath Hernández
Associate Dean for Inclusion & Student Engagement