A Graduate School of Education professor recently opened America’s first center that studies organizations that serve underrepresented student populations.

Penn’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions will study MSIs, which are colleges and universities that provide education to underrepresented students of color, typically from low income backgrounds. GSE Professor of Higher Education Marybeth Gasman is the first person to establish a research and support center for all the types of MSIs in the United States.

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The new center is located at St. Leonard’s Court on 39th and Chestnut Streets and had its grand opening on Jan. 21. It works to serve MSIs by providing resources, conducting research and expanding the scholarship around them, Gasman explained. She emphasized the importance of this work, as MSIs serve 20 percent of America’s undergraduate population, enrolling a total of 3.6 million students in 2012.

The Center is partnered with Educational Testing Services, an organization which works to improve quality and equity in education. Senior Vice President Michael Nettles outlined how Gasman’s work is the first of its kind to include Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions and institutions that serve Asians, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Gasman explained that the center enables people to collaborate across ethnic and racial divides, as “these institutions have the same strengths and challenges.”

Gasman previously researched MSIs in her work at GSE, but after a planning grant from the Kresge Foundation and funding from the Office of the Provost, the center was able to physically materialize in January. Having the actual space has given Gasman’s work “the opportunity to develop an identity,” Nettles said.

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Alongside a core of professional staff, both undergraduate and graduate Penn students work at the center researching a variety of topics related to MSIs.

College sophomore Melanie Wolff, the youngest member of Gasman’s team of eight research assistants, is currently researching Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education at HBCUs, specifically how HBCUs teach these subjects. Her ultimate goal is to improve STEM education across all MSIs.

Desmond Diggs, a masters student studying international education development, is also a research assistant as CMSI working with HCBUs. Having studied at an HBCU himself — Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia — he has always been aware of MSIs, but he stressed the fact that there is “an immense need to learn so much more.”

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Another example of a research area the center is examining are the LGBT communities at MSIs. Andrés Castro Samayoa, a doctoral student at GSE, is working at the center to examine what it means to institutionalize LGBT services at MSIs nationwide.

The opening of the center was accompanied by an extensive social media campaign, Gasman said. Wharton senior Oscar Cullen, the center’s social media specialist, has been managing the campaign since September. The response from MSI faculty across the country has been “really crazy,” he said, describing how they are “asking for more [information] all the time.”

Alongside research and increasing awareness, the center also provides tangible resources for MSIs. These include downloadable media kits, data sets and MSI directories. Gasman also has plans to host think tanks to discuss challenges facing MSIs, such as leadership.

“I want to have a significant impact and I want my students to have a significant impact,” Gasman said of her work.

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