Beth Olivares

‘Our goal is to transform lives’

Kharimat Alatise ’19 arrived at the University of Rochester as a first-generation college student, passionate about science, but not sure she really belonged.

Alatise, a biomedical engineering major whose parents moved to America from Nigeria, was excited to be at a university where undergraduates have ample opportunities to do research. But she was intimidated by the mere thought of approaching a professor about doing so.

The David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity helped Alatise overcome her shyness and doubts. As a McNair Scholar at the center, she gained confidence. She learned critical skills for networking and for preparing for graduate school. She seized upon two summer research opportunities. 

And now she is among the 85 percent of all the University’s McNair Scholars who go on to graduate school. Her dream is to become a professor.

“I want to mentor students like myself,” says Alatise, who is a PhD student in bioengineering at Clemson University. “I’ve had many great professors, but none that look like me. I want to be a role model to first-generation and minority students.”

Scores of other Hajim School undergraduates have enjoyed similar success—as McNair Scholars, Xerox Engineering Research Fellows, and as participants in other programs that are administered or supported by the Kearns Center.

Much of the credit for this goes to Beth Olivares. The center’s executive director and the University’s dean for diversity in Arts, Sciences & Engineering was a first-generation college student herself. She grew up in an interracial family in a variety of poor and working-class multicultural communities.

Olivares is passionate about making universities “actively inclusive for all.” She wants first-generation students, low-income students, and students of color from all walks of life to feel that they, too, can be equal partners, beneficiaries, and contributors in the academic sanctuary of scholarship.

“Our goal is to transform lives through educational opportunity,” Olivares explained in a remarkable Meliora Weekend Mel Talk in 2016.  “Our goal is that every student we touch is seen and understood.

“Whatever your circumstance, wherever you come from, whatever your problem... we’re here for you and we love you. We understand that you have circumstances that are beyond your control. But those circumstances should not prevent you from achieving your academic dreams.”

Overcoming early hardships

Olivares had no such dreams as child growing up in New York City. In her Mel Talk and in an interview with she shares her life experiences.

“I was born into a shattered family that didn't understand or value higher education,” she says. 

Her parents divorced when she was three months old; her mother became an alcoholic when her older brother died at the age of 12. 

As a 4-year-old, Olivares attended kindergarten in the Washington Heights area of upper Manhattan, “along with a multicultural, multilingual mix of kids: a true reflection of the neighborhood in which I grew up,” she says.  “I became a teenager in the Harlem of the 1970s; other than my mom and me, there might have been two other white people on the block.” In 9th, 11th and 12th grades, she attended John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, known then for its racial, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity, “sitting as it does on the line between tony Riverdale and poor/working class Kingsbridge.”

Twice Olivares was homeless as a teenager, in Harlem and Puerto Rico.

“And I only went to college because of pressure from a boyfriend, who said ‘You can’t go out with me unless you’re going to be educated.’” 

At 19, Olivares married boyfriend, who later was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. More recently, she survived stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma. 

And yet, despite all the disadvantages and hardships she has experienced, Olivares has excelled as a college student and subsequently as a university dean and administrator. Overcoming those obstacles helped define her mission in life.

“All of these experiences have helped me understand the interdependence of human beings. And the power of love and compassion to actually make a difference in the world and to create sanctuary,” she says.

“Because my life was changed by educational opportunity, as were the lives of some of my colleagues and those who have worked with me, I believe that we can create the kind of environment in which all students can achieve,” she says. 

“Always there for me”

Olivares joined the University in 1994 as a secretary in the Strong Memorial Hospital housekeeping department. At the time, she was completing her doctoral degree in English literature at Fordham University. Her duties included processing payroll and scheduling shifts for 180 employees.

Two years later, she was named coordinator (and later director) of the University’s Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalauerate Achievement Program, which aims to increase the numbers of low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented minority undergraduates who pursue PhD degrees and go on to careers in research and teaching at the university level.

In 2002 she was named to head the Kearns Center, which was established that year. Over the past several years, she led the University through a restorative practices effort in response to a sexual misconduct case that roiled the institution. As dean of diversity for Arts, Sciences & Engineering, she was instrumental in ensuring that equity and inclusion were highlighted as one of the three priorities for AS&E moving forward.  She focuses her work on elevate the importance of diversity and equity in all aspects of University life, including the hiring, retention, and professional development of staff and faculty and the full engagement of undergraduate and graduate students in the life of AS&E .

At the Kearns Center, Olivares and her staff developed an educational pipeline for students from middle school through doctoral programs. The center has received more than $16 million in external support for its various programs. These include Upward Bound, which gives Rochester City School District students who are from low income families in which the parents or guardians have not attended college, an opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a college student, and the Xerox Research Engineering Fellows Program for Hajim School undergraduates.

The metrics have been impressive:

  • Over 95 percent of the Center’s Upward Bound and Upward Bound Math-Science students graduate on time from Rochester City School District high schools, and enroll in college. The district’s overall graduation rate is below 50 percent.
  • 85 percent of McNair Scholars at the University of Rochester enroll in graduate studies compared to 45 percent nationally. More than 120 of them have earned doctoral degrees.
  • The Xerox Engineering Research Fellowship program enabled more than 240 rising Hajim School juniors and seniors to spend a summer doing hands-on, mentored research in a faculty member’s lab.More than a third of Xerox fellows were female and nearly a quarter were underrepresented minority students. About 60 percent subsequently enrolled in graduate school.

In addition, the Kearns Center collaborates with several University of Rochester STEM faculty members, including Hajim School faculty members, who teach short courses for city high school students and host them as research assistants in their labs.

“This has been an overwhelming success—the high school students are exposed to university-level coursework and learn that they too can pursue these fields. The faculty write successful grant proposals to agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which require broadening participation plans; and their graduate students develop additional teaching and research skills, in particular, working with a diversity of students they might have not have found in the college classroom,” Olivares says.

“Everyone wins, and everyone has fun.”

With NSF support, the Kearns Center expanded this model of faculty involvement to three local colleges: a community college, a predominantly undergraduate institution, and an Ivy League university. 

For these accomplishments, Olivares received the 2015 Presidential Award for Excellence in Engineering, Science and Math Mentoring from President Barack Obama and a 2012 Witmer Award for Distinguished Service from the University.

She tends to downplay these awards, “believing as I do in the innate ability of each student to succeed and achieve his or her goals,” she says. “However, more recently I have come to realize that, without the space that I and my colleagues have made, purposefully, here at the University of Rochester, many of my students would never have actually been seen, might never have had the opportunity to speak their dreams, or might never have understood that the path they have taken was actually there for them.”

The strongest validation of that comes from the students themselves, such as Kharimat Alatise.

“At the highest of my high points, and the lowest of the lows, the Kearns Center was always there for me,” Alatise says.