Dr. Nguyen explained that when she began her academic career there wasn’t much diversity in higher education. “Looking around and not having a representation of you in the academy, particularly in the social sciences and humanities, makes it appear that the academy is not a welcoming place for you, not a place where you’ll be successful.” She has been pleased to see that as her career progressed the academy has slowly become more diverse and recognized that diversity enhances innovation, academic excellence, and makes the university climate a better place.
One way UNC-Chapel Hill has ensured more diversity is by “increasing the pipeline for students of color and retaining faculty.” She explains that the Planning Department has diversified its graduate population by reevaluating the metrics used to make admissions decisions. Because of the economic and social inequalities faced by students of color, focusing solely on the traditional measures of success like GPA and prestigious secondary schools may overlook many students of color. Instead, she encourages admissions officers to take a “whole portfolio” approach by valuing other indicators of excellence such as leadership skills, community involvement, and lived experiences to ensure a diverse student body.
She has also worked hard to retain faculty of color by promoting their work, ensuring funding for their work, supporting them throughout the arduous tenure process, and linking them with mentors. As director of the New Faculty Program for the College of Arts & Sciences she links new faculty with experienced mentors, familiarizes them with resources to help integrate them into the campus and local community, and promotes their research.
As director of the Moore Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program, she conducts a ten-week intensive summer program to train promising young scholars from underrepresented backgrounds to become successful academics. She is also the Board Chair of the Urban Affairs Association and has contributed to the formation of an honors society to promote the work of undergraduate and graduate students working in urban studies. If you are interested in forming a chapter at your campus visit https://urbanaffairsassociation.org/upsilon-sigma/.
Through these many initiatives Dr. Nguyen has worked to make the academy a more diverse and inclusive place for students and faculty alike. Planning for diversity not only supports the work of academics of color but makes the entire academy a more innovative and vibrant space.
Dr. Mai Thi Nguyen is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s City and Regional Planning Department and teaches in the Housing and Community Development specialization. Her research focuses on housing policy, social and spatial inequality, and resilient communities. Mai has recently been appointed the interim MURAP Program Director. She also serves as the Director of New Faculty Programs at the Institute for Arts and Humanities. Dr. Nguyen is currently the Chairperson of the Urban Affairs Association Governing Board. She is the founder and moderator of Planners 2040, a Facebook discussion group that engages urban planning scholars globally in lively discussion on innovative teaching and research topics. Dr. Nguyen and her research team was awarded the 2019 Bronze Medal for Regional Plans by the Vietnam Urban Planning and Development Association. Follow her work on her website http://mai.web.unc.edu/.