For a few years now, we have been issuing travel grants to SIGCHI student members. These have been sponsored by three SIGCHI funds: the Gary Marsden Student Development Fund (GMF — for students living and studying in the Global South), the SIGCHI Student Travel Grants (SSTG — for all students, located anywhere), and the Early Career Mentorship Fund for Emerging Communities (ECMF — for early-career professionals from the Global South). We had planned to periodically evaluate and iterate on these funds, and with the current pause in travel, this seemed like a good time. We detail this exercise below by first describing how these funds worked in the past, then summarizing the survey we conducted and its results, towards a revised Gary Marsden Travel Awards (GMTA) program, and finally reaffirming our commitment to support underrepresented voices in our communities globally and locally, as we have done in the past.
A close examination revealed some overlap across these travel funds, and processes that could be streamlined to cut volunteer time and effort. On the ACM/SIGCHI fronts, keeping track of our financial commitments when most awards were provisional was no small burden. There were concerns on the applicants’ fronts as well that our committees had heard over the years; for example, reimbursements can be a challenge due to high upfront costs for air travel and conference registration. We also imagined there were more applicant concerns that we were yet to consider. This led us to conduct a survey of SIGCHI members — those who had thought about applying to any of these funds as well as those who had not yet.
This survey was taken by 143 people, with 86% having applied for travel grants previously. Among these applicants, 30% had applied to Gary Marsden, 82% to SSTGs, and 4% to ECMF. Approximately 75% of applicants had received a travel grant before. We asked participants what their overall experience had been. We also asked targeted questions around some of the concerns we had begun to address, to get their feedback. For example, was it better for awards to be provisional or not? How feasible was it for grant recipients to obtain funds from their advisor or institution before travel rather than paying out of pocket.
Provisional or Not: On whether awards should be provisional, responses were strongly in favor of non-provisional awards, that is, applying for a travel award after having a submission accepted to the conference. Participants noted that this would save the work of applying, reduce the labor of thinking about travel grants far ahead of time (and right around the time of writing the submission), and reduce the pressure of getting the paper in. However, there were also some respondents who were in favor of the provisional awards, explaining that they reduce uncertainty, increase motivation for writing/submitting work, and make it easier to plan travel or visa applications. We are taking these into account with our revisions.
Reimbursements: As suspected, reimbursements were challenging for respondents due to high upfront costs, requiring some to borrow money from family, their institution, or via credit cards (that some applicants did not have). At the same time, a little more than half of participants, when asked if their advisor or institution would be able to cover expenses and be reimbursed themselves, answered with a 1 or 2 (1 = Rarely, if ever, 5 = This is always an option for me). Many participants said that receiving the grant before incurring expenses, or even receiving a portion of the grant upfront (including by having flights or registration paid for directly) would be helpful in easing this burden. To this end, participants were positive about the prospect of having a travel agency book flights directly for students. However, there were concerns about flexibility, responsiveness, and efficiency, and ability to work with customers globally. There was understandably a desire for the grants to simply offer more money, as even flight and accommodation costs could add up.
Transparency: There were concerns around transparency, with participants explaining that they did not know how awardees were chosen. Many participants said it would be helpful if there were pointers for what made a strong application and if past awardees and demographic statistics could be listed. One suggestion for transparency in the administration of grants was ensuring email communication always happens with multiple people. Related was the visibility of the grant program overall, with participants suggesting venues for more publicizing, such as local chapters and conference websites.
Recommendations: There were additional suggestions for modifying the travel grants. One was that it is important that SIGCHI support students from underrepresented groups in attending conferences for the first time, whether they have a submission or not. This would support students in gaining experience and getting involved in the community. Another participant noted that it could be valuable to offer more frequent and smaller scholarships for people who might live close to a conference’s venue, which could stretch the impact of grant money. A suggested modification that might offer further flexibility for applicants was allowing letters of support from non-advisors, since not everyone may have an advisor. One participant suggested that the grant could allow non-student applicants as well, extending support to those who are early in their career and may also struggle to find travel support. There were also several suggestions for supporting students in getting more value from their experience, including certificates for awardees, having awardees describe their experience at the conference to offer inspiration for future applicants, and enabling virtual participation to support participation more broadly.
Taking into account all responses to the best of our abilities, we are launching the revised program in time for our first deadline on January 9, 2021. Program details are on our official website and you can apply here. Although we have factored in changes that account for physical travel, these will only go into effect once we have embraced travel again as a community, at the ACM and SIGCHI levels. Until then, we are considering virtual travel, which for CHI 2021 would entail waived registrations, for example. Applicants will also be able to use the March 9, 2021 deadline for “travel” to CHI 2021. We will post these and other deadlines on SIGCHI’s official social media and website, as well as the conference website.
Before concluding, we reaffirm our commitment to fostering equitable participation in SIGCHI venues. We acknowledge that much work remains to be done on addressing underrepresented voices in our community. Like other SIGCHI community support initiatives, our travel awards are committed to supporting diversity and inclusion, locally and globally, from a racial/ethnic perspective as well as attending to different dimensions of marginality, including cultural differences, social roles, sexual orientation and gender identity, structural positions, geographic marginality, physical/psychological marginality, as well as epistemic marginality. Multiple efforts are underway to dedicate more resources along these margins, and to be as inclusive as possible in all that we do.
Our grant programs have been managed by two solid volunteer teams who gave significant input and feedback towards the redesign. The GMF/ECMF team consisted of Zhengjie Liu (alongside Susan Dray, Anicia Peters, Simone Barbosa, Matt Jones, and Gerrit van der Veer) while the SSTG team included Jofish Kaye (as well as A.J. Brush, Astrid Weber, Moira Burke, and Natalie Garrett). Even earlier versions of these programs drew from contributions made by Scooter Morris, Tom Erickson, and Aaron Quigley. The funds were disbursed by the ACM — Sade Rodriguez, Ashley Cozzi, and Farrah Khan. They will together oversee the GMTA program.
Neha Kumar & Naveena Karusala
On behalf of the SIGCHI Development Fund Committee