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College of Liberal Arts
University of Mississippi

Professor Acknowledged for ‘Positive Advancement’ of Diversity

Rebecca Symula recognized for work on HHMI inclusive excellence grant

Rebecca Symula (second from right) recognized for work on HHMI inclusive excellence grantRebecca Symula, instructional associate professor of biology, has been recognized by the Mississippi Institutions for Higher Learning for her contributions to the positive advancement of diversity at the University of Mississippi.

The Diversity Award for Excellence is given annually to nominees from each of the state’s eight public universities. The awards were presented Feb. 15 as part of the IHL‘s observance of Black History Month.

Symula says her work in diversity and inclusion is not just a passion project or a side interest – it is an essential part of strengthening the university.

“In reality, the data says we need to do better,” she said. “So, we do better. Let’s build a sense of academic success in a variety of ways for all kinds of different students.”

The origins of her interest in diversity and inclusion in the classroom began at the University of Texas. As a doctoral student, she worked with incoming freshmen from rural high schools – who often did not have access to the same resources or opportunities as their peers – to close the gaps in their foundational knowledge and skills.

“One of my students was so excited to be in college because they had running water every day,” she said. “It really opened my eyes to the variety of backgrounds and experiences these students were bringing to the classroom.

“When I came to the University of Mississippi, I was already in the mindset of helping students come from where they are and achieve what they want to achieve.”

At Ole Miss, Symula has been involved in multiple programs that strengthen diversity and inclusion. In the Department of Biology, she is chair of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.

“Beckie is really good in this realm,” said Jason Hoeksema, professor of biology. “She is really well-informed and good at applying her experience and knowledge to new situations and thinking about how we can propose policy for our department that is equitable and inclusive.”

Symula has also worked with Hoeksema and biology assistant professor Peter Zee to develop a mentor program for freshmen taking introductory biology courses. The program, which connects students with peer tutors, has grown since it began in 2020.

“We now have 28 mentors,” Symula said. “They work in pairs, and they are a variety of humans – we have students who participate in Greek life, student ambassadors, pharmacy majors, biology majors and students from a wide range of student organizations, such as the Black Student Union, American Medical Women’s Association, UM Pride Network and the UM Garden Club.

“They all have different approaches in how they learn.”

The program has strengthened relationships among students and built community, she said. The group has also provided student feedback regarding other university programs such as Study USA.

“It has been really gratifying to witness – to see them figure out that their voice matters,” she said. “They are giving back in a variety of ways.”

In March 2023, the university announced its involvement in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Inclusive Excellence 3 Initiative. Symula is a co-principal investigator on the grant, which supports work to understand, promote and evaluate inclusivity in teaching science, technology, education and mathematics.

Valeria Ross, program manager for the College of Liberal Arts, is a co-PI on the grant. She said Symula is committed to student success.

“Evidence of this commitment is easily discernible if you talk to her students, her colleagues or her friends,” Ross said. “Students who have the opportunity to take a class or work with Dr. Symula, whether it be curricular or extracurricular, are provided support that facilitates a sense of belonging – in the field, in the classroom and at this university.

“She repeatedly goes above and beyond her teaching and research responsibilities to ensure that all students have maximum support and resources to support their academic success.”

Looking forward, the HHMI grant team will investigate the factors that influence students’ sense of belonging, with the aim of developing practical interventions that faculty and staff can implement in their classes and other university programs. Symula said they plan to partner with ongoing campus initiatives, such as the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning’s Inclusive Teaching Faculty Learning Community.

Symula is “extremely deserving” of the award as a founding member of the team leading the HHMI project, which spans 15 institutions across the nation, said Kirsten Dellinger, PI and associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion in the College of Liberal Arts.

“She is leading national conversations about how to create conditions conducive to a more inclusive STEM environment,” Dellinger said. “On this campus, she really listens to and centers students’ needs and seeks resources that will support their holistic development and well-being, as well as their interest and passion for science.”

Hoeksema also credits Symula’s participation in the grant for expanding her knowledge in DEI, but also for sharing that knowledge.

“It’s a huge project across multiple institutions and her experience in that is really valuable,” Hoeksema said. “Not only is she bringing her own perspective to that project, but the biology department also gets to see the benefits of her experience.

“Her involvement further sharpens her skills in this area, and I’ve seen that come back to us in the form of fresh ideas for biology and a really mature and deep perspective on how to handle growing in DEI within our department.”