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Striving for the Future

Pitt Engineering’s STRIVE Program is helping underrepresented PhD students make meaningful, lasting connections in academia

Brandon Jennings was initially committed to the Georgia Institute of Technology to continue his research, but the promise of a new, inclusive program for PhD students at the University of Pittsburgh made him give it some extra thought. 

The program presented to Jennings was an early rendition of the now-called STRIVE (Success, Transition, Representation, Innovation, Vision, and Education) Program. It encouraged him to enroll in the Swanson School of Engineering’s PhD program in Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“I was sold on the principles of the program,” Jennings, who is now a deployment robotics engineer at Covariant, said. “I also already had ties with Pitt faculty members as an undergraduate student. I knew I would have support if I chose to stay.” 

And he did, becoming one of the most successful STRIVE graduates.

The STRIVE Program was designed by Sylvanus Wosu, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Materials Science and Associate Dean for Diversity Affairs, and his team to improve the transitions of underrepresented minorities (URM). The program recruits US citizens into doctoral engineering programs at Pitt and utilizes evidence-based strategies to foster an inclusive academic climate and ensure success. 

Since establishing the program through a $1.58 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant and a $731,000 matching support from Dean Emeritus Gerald Holder in 2016, Wosu and his team have seen an exceptional amount of growth for the program itself and its graduates. 

“When it comes to graduate education, we want to foster a culture of excellence,” Wosu said. “To do that, we had to establish an entirely new culture at the Swanson School that embraced students of different backgrounds to make excellence inclusive.” 

The Swanson School Had a Problem. So It Strived For a Solution. 

Wosu noticed three distinct problems when he took over his role as the associate dean for diversity affairs. 

  1. Faculty felt the underrepresented students weren’t adequately prepared for graduate-level education 
  2. Underrepresented students felt they didn’t belong in these programs 
  3. There wasn’t leadership to represent underrepresented students 

“With the STRIVE Program, we wanted to reverse these trends,” Wosu said. “The goal was to change the climate of Pitt Engineering, not to change the students.” 

The STRIVE Program adopts evidence-based strategies such as structured mentoring to promote the transition of underrepresented students to doctoral and postdoctoral programs. Most of these strategies are backed by research and recommendations from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). To ensure the STRIVE Program is meeting the needs for each student, Wosu personally meets with every student individually each month for 45 minutes. 


“Meeting with students one-on-one not only allows me to monitor their progress individually, professionally, and personally, but to also watch them grow and adapt to Pitt over the months we meet together,” Wosu said. 

The program is working. As of 2024, retention rates for underrepresented students in the Swanson School’s graduate program have continued to grow and sits at above 89 percent. Over 70 students are scholars and fellows in the program.

Daniel Angarita, a graduate student researcher in Pitt’s Department of Bioengineering, came to the United States from Colombia almost over a decade ago to continue his career and was met with culture shock, isolation, and homesickness. Despite being well-acclimated to the United States prior to joining Pitt, he still joined the STRIVE Program once he began his program to help  

“Having others who can relate to your experience is crucial when you’re in an unfamiliar place,” Angarita said. “You don’t only come together on a personal level, but there’s a chance of leveraging each other’s scientific abilities in research later down the line.”

Striving for Student Success 

The culture change at the Swanson School, as Wosu hoped for, is starting to happen. 

More faculty members recognize the success of the program. Wosu said that some have actively sought out students enrolled in the program to join their labs as well as connect students to the program to ensure their success as a graduate student. 

Steven Abramowitch, professor of bioengineering and associate chair of culture and community, was the co-principal investigator on the original NSF grant to jumpstart the program. He said that graduate programs are a “particularly challenging” time for researchers early in their careers. 

“Graduate students need a strong social network with resources to succeed,” Abramowitch said. “A lot of graduate students, particularly those who are underrepresented, don't have that. The STRIVE Program sets out to shrink that gap.” 

One of his own students, Temitope Obisesan, was someone who’d gain from joining the STRIVE Program after Abramowitch noticed her being reserved in lab settings with her peers. 

“If I didn’t join the program, the only connections I would have made at Pitt would’ve been in my lab,” Obisesan said. “When I joined STRIVE, I started to feel less alone as I met others from similar backgrounds. It not only made me more confident, but pushed me in the right direction academically.” 

The STRIVE Program hosts a large networking retreat each year to provide a more informal setting for faculty and students to interact. Between discussions of scientific research and academics, there’s a universal feeling of connection and understanding between those that attend. 

“Based on my experience interacting with people from other backgrounds, that’s going to make you overcome any situation and problem solve – together,” Angarita said.