Highlighting Scholars' Graduate School Writing

By Erin Todey, Statement of Purpose Writing Consultant

Our McNair Scholars spend months crafting their statement of purpose (SoP), an important essay that details the applicant’s relevant experiences, research interests, career goals, motivations for pursuing a graduate degree, and fit to a graduate program. The SoP is an opportunity for our Scholars to think critically and introspectively about how their experiences have led them to this point in their academic career. Yet, while the SoP is core to the graduate school application, it is rarely read beyond a few professors on an application committee. 


The stories our Scholars share with me as I support them in writing the SoP are beautiful, vulnerable, and represent the joy and pain of the human experience; especially salient are the challenges that first-generation, low-income, and historically marginalized students encounter at a predominately white institution. I’m honored to join them on their journey and am grateful that they are willing to share their experiences with me. Given the dedication the Scholars give to writing the SoP, we’d like to share an excerpt from one Scholar’s SoP to celebrate their experiences, voices, and commitment to the graduate school application process.


In her SoP, Karen Devora-Cigarroa, a Senior in Civil Engineering, reflects on how her personal life, research, and internship experiences have deeply influenced her desire to pursue a graduate degree in civil engineering with an emphasis on humanitarian work.


     My first visit to Mexico was like a missing puzzle piece that put many things into perspective. I was fifteen years old when my family and I finally got to visit my parents’ hometown. My siblings and I had often heard about what it was like for my parents growing up there and why they risked their lives to immigrate to the U.S. for a better life. Despite their stories, it was the first time I realized the impact of the lack of simple infrastructure - running water, heat, and internet connection - and understood why so many would rather leave. That visit was a major catalyst for my interest in civil engineering and now drives my pursuit of a Master’s in Civil Engineering.

     In the Order of the Engineer Ceremony, graduating engineering students take an oath where they swear to practice with integrity, honesty, serve humanity and “give the utmost”. I decided to study civil engineering to make a positive impact in the community, specifically in underdeveloped communities. I want to be part of the change that allows others to dream big and not be limited by their surrounding infrastructure, which is why I want to apply for concurrent enrollment in the Graduate Certificate in Global Engineering. The global emphasis on community development that drives the research projects resonates with my want to advocate for communities in need and use my engineering knowledge to meet their infrastructure needs.
There are many obstacles that arise daily, but the uncertainty of adequate shelter or reliable infrastructure should not be one of them.

     I am excited to pursue my master’s in civil engineering, a broad discipline that is the building block of our society. Throughout my undergraduate career, my curricular and extracurricular experiences have been rich with information and experiences that have allowed me to learn the fundamentals of civil engineering, but I am ready to specialize my knowledge towards humanitarian efforts. I believe that the master’s in civil engineering and the Global
Certificate offered by the Mortenson Center in Global Engineering can help me realize my goal by providing me the hands-on experience and coursework needed to successfully serve my global community. The research and summer practicum components of the program will allow me to implement the theory and problem-solving skills I develop in the classroom to address real world issues affecting communities today. Because of these program offerings, I believe CU Boulder will let me further my education in the direction where I can find value in my work while serving my global community and fulfilling my duty as a Civil Engineer.

Another document that is becoming more common in the graduate school application is the diversity statement. While we’re still lacking a clear understanding of how this is used in an application, our Scholars spend considerable time thinking about how they can share their experiences with an unknown audience. 


Nadine Veasley, a Senior in Microbiology, has a wealth of experience in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and given her experiences, we thought critically about how she could engage with the diversity essay in a unique way. She decided to use her spoken word poem from the 2020 ISCORE conference to respond to several schools’ diversity prompts. Nadine’s diversity essay is beautifully written, and I’m grateful that she agreed to share it in this newsletter.

As a black woman from a single parent household where the importance of education was instilled in me from a young age, such an obligation and weight has been placed on me to succeed. Neither of my parents went to college. Out of my 5 brothers, only 3 graduated from high school and one didn’t even make it to see 21.

I have had to overcome various obstacles just to get to where I am today, and I know other people who come from similar backgrounds have had similar experiences. To support my peers, I have been engaged in a multitude of organizations, clubs, and initiatives with the goal of improving the diversity and inclusion specifically at a predominantly white institution. Some of these include being a peer mentor for incoming students with marginalized identities, presenting and attending conferences around the topics of race and ethnicity, as well as being a part of a historically black sorority. Even with my involvement in all these initiatives, I still struggle with feeling as if I belong. For the Iowa State Conference on Race and Ethnicity (ISCORE), I performed the following poem which articulates my experiences:

As of the 2019 fall semester there are 4169 students in the College of Agriculture & Life Science
here at Iowa State University.
117 of those are microbiology majors.
4 of those are black.
I am one of those 4.
I stick out.
I’m an imposter in my own body.
Only on paper I belong.
My grades,
My test scores,
The way I string words together to create a sentence,
The way put sentences together to write this poem.
They see me but don’t really see me.
Yes, I am black.
Skin is not the only thing that defines me; please remember my intellect.

Do I belong here?
Does my melanin overpower my qualifications?
Is this not comfortable for you?
Because I am not comfortable here.
This is imposter syndrome.
Black is always something I have known,
But black has been something I have tried to hide,
Tried to unlearn,
Tried to whitewash like the history books I was given,
But then I learned black is beautiful like the curls of an afro,
Is strength like those mothers of those deceased black boys,
Is determination like civil rights movement,
Is love like cocoa butter.
Black is my skin.
Black is the dirt from the concrete I rose,
Yet still my love is deeply rooted.
I keep my feelings underground,
But even Harriet led underground to freedom.
I’m a leader.
I am a black woman pursuing a college education in a STEM field.
Every step I take, is one of resistance.
Every move I make is an earthquake to a crooked system.
I carry the weight of my ancestors on my shoulders.
Their weight is not something heavy,
But something of strength,
Of power,
And encouragement.
My ancestors were not allowed to learn,
To read,
To speak.
I speak with emancipation-
A proclamation that melanin makes me more qualified to be here.
And I’m sorry if I make you uncomfortable but how do you expect to grow if you don’t step a
little out of your comfort zone?
Please tell me,
Do you feel the imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is something I feel every once in a while, but I still have to remind myself about my accomplishments. My experiences have given me the tools to help others combat these feelings and I will continue to do that in whatever spaces I may occupy in the future.


                                        Karen Devora-Cigarroa - 2020 Cohort


             Nadine Veasley - 2020 Cohort