Fontaine Society helps increase diversity among doctoral students

Text by Greg Johnson

Named in honor of William Fontaine, the first tenured African-American faculty member at Penn, the Fontaine Society is one of a portfolio of activities at the University designed to enhance diversity at the Ph.D. level.

Fontaine Society
Students converse during the Fontaine Society’s annual dinner, where they can meet other Fontaine Fellows. Photo by Fontaine Society
Named in honor of William Fontaine, who in 1963 became Penn’s first tenured African-American faculty member, the Fontaine Society, sponsored by the Office of the Provost, is one of a portfolio of activities at the University designed to enhance diversity at the Ph.D. level.
Each of Penn’s nine schools with Ph.D. programs is invited to identify incoming doctoral applicants from underrepresented groups and nominate them as Fontaine Fellows. Students can, for instance, be from historically underrepresented groups, such as African Americans or Hispanics, or first-generation college students from low-income families, or other students identified as underrepresented in a specific field.
Karen Lawrence, associate director for education in the Office of the Provost, says the Society provides networking and a peer-support system for underrepresented Ph.D. students at Penn, aiding in student retention and connecting doctoral candidates with members of the University community who share similar challenges, interests, and goals.
“They may be the only, or one of the few, underrepresented students in philosophy, for example, or in applied economics, but something like the Fontaine Society—with all its activities—brings these students together and provides a support network and a social network,” Lawrence says.
Currently, 266 Ph.D. students from a range of disciplines are Fontaine Fellows. Over the past three decades, 494 Fontaine Society alumni have earned their Ph.Ds. Three are now working at the School of Nursing in faculty or post-doc positions.
Ross S. Johnson, a practice associate professor of nursing, was a Fontaine Fellow in the mid-1990s when he was a Ph.D. student at Penn. He says the program provided guidance, and enabled him to engage with other doctoral students and learn about different areas of scholarship.
“I’m an immunologist by training so it gave me an opportunity to engage with other Fellows of color because, at the time, there were not that many African Americans or Hispanics,” he says. “There were a few, but there were not a lot.”
Many of his fellow Penn and Fontaine Society alums have graduated to success across the country, including Kali Nicole Gross, who is now a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin; Rhonda Frederick, a professor of English at Boston College; Rhonda Y. Williams, a professor of history at Case Western Reserve University; and Fred Allen, associate director for undergraduate education at Drexel.
“All of these people help you, mentor you, give you advice, encourage you, and give you insight into scholarship in an effort to prevent you from being in an isolated environment as a graduate student,” Johnson says.
Sarah Adeyinka, a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology in the School of Arts & Sciences, is presently the president of the Fontaine Society, and has been involved with the program since she enrolled at Penn. She says the Society provides doctoral students with a built-in network of like-minded peers.
“Graduate school can be incredibly isolating,” she says. “Once you decide to come to Penn and you are accepted into Fontaine, you already know a group of people, and that’s important for being able to start the program off with some sort of social circle.”
As a member of the Fontaine Coordinating Committee, Adeyinka helps plan and communicate programming and events for Fontaine Fellows, including volunteer opportunities, workshops, “Chat and Chews” with faculty, plays, music festivals, athletic contests, speakers, conferences, dance performances, career fairs, and research colloquiums.
“We don’t just get together and eat food,” Adeyinka says. “We’re definitely interested in social issues that are both domestic and global. I think Fontaine is a great place in terms of always speaking about social justice issues. We’re not just at Penn and stuck in this small bubble, we’re concerned with things that are happening in the larger society and how that impacts the work that we’re doing as graduate students.”
The majority of Fontaine Fellows are people of color, but Adeyinka says the group is very diverse.
“A lot of people, when they think about Fontaine, they think that it’s just a group for people of color, but we actually have whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics,” she says.

Originally published on .