Erika Aparaka

Participant: PROMISE AGEP Research Symposium


Erika Aparaka

Department: Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership

Institution: University of Maryland, College Park (UMD)



You are Not Alone: Third Space, Social Isolation and African American Graduate Students in STEM Degree Programs

Attrition in graduate school is a problem across disciplines and populations. The extant research provides many examples of barriers students face in completing degree programs such as financial aid issues, lack of mentorship and feelings of inadequacy. The aforementioned barriers are extremely prevalent in the African American community where the sense of isolation can be very strong, even in programs where racial bias is not a pronounced issue. This study proposes to examine aspects of the PROMISE Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) Summer Success Institute (SSI) program that provide a sense of community for African American graduate students through the lense of third space theory. The PROMISE-AGEP SSI provides an opportune starting point for studying the operationalization of third space because of its inclusion of participants from various academic levels who come to participate at SSI in support of graduate student persistence. The purpose of studying the issue of African American persistence in STEM graduate degree programs is to better understand what works well for African American students and to address the institutional inequalities that have traditionally made obtaining a Ph.D. in STEM especially prohibitive. The study will examine how third space is operationalized and assess what characteristics of third space are present at SSI and where SSI departs from the concept of third space. The study will also research in what ways the availability of a third space combats social isolation among African American graduate students in STEM graduate degree programs.



Erika is a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland College Park. She attended Howard University as an undergraduate and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. She also completed a Masters of Education from Howard University with a specialization in Elementary education. In 2014 she earned a Master of Arts in Education Policy from the University of Maryland College Park. Erika began her doctoral journey after serving as a fifth grade teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools. Upon beginning her doctoral studies she transitioned to a role in student affairs at the University of Maryland in the Aerospace Department. She worked closely with undergraduate and graduate students and subsequently developed a research interest in underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. Erika lives in Montgomery County with her husband, two sons, and two dogs.



Erika’s research interests are focused on evaluating and understanding how programming like the PROMISE AGEP and the concept of third space theory (or alternative space), support the retention and persistence of African American graduate students in STEM fields.  While aspects of PROMISE AGEP have been studied, the application of third space theory to the program and its activities is opportune for exploration. With her research she proposes to study how underrepresented minority graduate student experience their respective programs, their interactions with peers, faculty, and staff who operate the program, support their persistence to degree completion.  Erika is currently crafting a study to assess how the Summer Success Institute fosters a sense of community among graduate students and faculty. This includes exploring what challenges program staff experience in creating a useful and accepting space for students to interact, what forms of cultural and social capital do students acquire through participating in the program, and whether students seek out or create similar “third spaces” outside of the program that foster a sense of belonging and help them resist isolation and negative messages that they might experience in predominantly white institutions.



  1. Tull, R.G., Hester, S., Medina, Y.,Williams, D., Medina,H. Aparaka, E. (2018). Developing Humanitarian Engineering Perspectives Among Underrepresented Scholars Through Engagement with the Sustainable Development Goals in Global Contexts. Presented at ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Salt Lake City, UT.
  2. Aparaka, E., Tull, R., & Rutledge, J.C. (2018). From Expectation to Motivation: The PROMISE AGEP’s Summer Success Institute (SSI) Provides an Alternative Space to Cultivate Future Faculty. Poster session presented at the AGEP National Research Conference, Berkeley, CA.
  3. Aparaka, E., Williams, D.N., Tull, R. (2018).  Using Alternative Space and a Psychological Sense of Community within Underrepresented MinorityStudent Professional Development to Aid Student Retention and Reduce Attrition. Presented at the Understanding Interventions Conference in Baltimore, MD and as a poster session at the AGEP National Research Conference, Berkeley, CA.
  4. Tull, R.G., Reed, A.M., Felder, P.P., Hester, S., Williams, D., Medina, Y., Aparaka, E., Ordóñez, P. (2017). Hashtag #ThinkBigDiversity: Social Media Hacking Activities as Hybridized Mentoring Mechanisms for Underrepresented Minorities in STEM. Presented at ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, OH.
  5. Aparakakankanange, E., & Tull, R. (2014). An AGEP Program Analysis: Minority Graduate Student Diversity in STEM Disciplines at Three Maryland Universities. 2014 International Conference on Interactive Collaborative Learning (ICL), at Dubai, United Arab Emirates.


Disclaimer: Information on this page has been provided by and is owned by the student presenter.

%d bloggers like this: