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Over the past four decades, a unique program at Penn has provided Ph.D. hopefuls with an opportunity to pursue a doctoral education.

The Fontaine Society, which was established in 1970 to bring underrepresented groups into graduate programs, has evolved over the years to become more of a community-based group.

The society was set up as a scholarship to honor the late William Fontaine, who, in the 1950s, became the first black man to become a fully affiliated and tenured professor at the University.

Initially, the main goal of the endowment for the Fontaine Fellowship was to increase the number of graduate degrees attained by underrepresented students. Today, however, the society focuses exclusively on providing resources for Ph.D. students.

Associate Director of Education in the Office of the Provost Karen Lawrence said this shift was made to increase the number of underrepresented faculty.

“I was introduced to the Fontaine Society as a place for students from underrepresented groups across the campus to come together to socially interact and to share scholarship,” said Margo Brooks Carthon, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing and Fontaine alumna. “It became a touch point for me to meet with other scholars outside of my discipline.”

Though not all of the more than 200 Fontaine Society members today receive funding for being part of the group, being a member brings together a community of students from different backgrounds, but with similar goals.

“It became an important network of social support because the doctoral process is intensely rigorous and it can be really all-consuming, so it’s nice to have another group of people that can kind of get that experience,” Carthon said.

Co-Chair of the Fontaine Society and doctoral student Juliana Partridge agreed.

“The Fontaine Society is a really unique thing that Penn offers to its graduate students. I haven’t come across anything like it,” she said. “There is something really special about having a group for Ph.D. students who come from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds … We provide each other support both emotionally and socially and also academically.”

One of the major shifts over the past five years within the society has been the shift toward a more flexible definition of “underrepresented.”

Though the society initially classified underrepresented as black, Latino and American Indian students, the bounds have expanded recently to include first-generation and low-income students. Additionally, the society now considers students who are underrepresented in their respective academic fields, such as women in physics, men in nursing and Asian-Americans in education, Lawrence said.

“There are other people that add to the diversity of the University that are not necessarily from a traditionally and historically underrepresented group,” Lawrence said.

The biggest part of the society now is the community brought together through the program, she added. From wine-tasting tours to volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House to conferences for sharing scholarship, the Fontaine Society has generated a unique sub-community in the Penn graduate student world.

“I am astonished at what the current leadership has been able to pull of in the last couple of years,” Lawrence said. “These are students that are working full time on their dissertations, taking classes, and yet they are putting together fantastic programming for other students in the community.”

For Carthon, this group of scholars has also been a support group, helping each other in various situations, for better and for worse.

“It gave you a kind of stamina. It was the coaches on the sidelines that pushed you when you felt like giving up. Having people who are not necessarily linked in because of funding, it really speaks about the value of it. It’s not just the funding,” she said. “It really speaks for the intangibles that are in place.”

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