Higher education has long made efforts to increase underrepresented minority participation in biomedical research and health fields. However, relatively few minority trainees complete advanced degrees or proceed to independent research careers, a loss referred to as the “leaky pipeline.” Minority trainees may take alternate pathways to climbing the academic ladder, exiting to pursue multiple disciplinary or community-serving roles.

Objective: The authors propose a model for understanding minority departures from the education pipeline as a basis for supporting careers that align with community goals for health.

Methods: Concepts of the traditional pipeline training model are compared with a model that aligns with community-based participatory research (CBPR) principles and practices. The article describes an irrigation model that incorporates informal learning from academic and community knowledge bases to prepare trainees for CBPR and interdisciplinary research. Students serve as agents that foster individual, institutional, and social change needed to address health problems while attending to root causes of disparities.

Conclusions: Viewing minority students as agents for community engagement allows institutions to reassess the role training can play in diversifying participation in higher education and research. An irrigation model supports development of an infrastructure that optimizes success at all post-secondary levels, and enhances CBPR capacity wherever trainees live, work, and learn. Linking formal education to informal learning in context of CBPR experiences can also reduce community mistrust of research while nurturing productive research partnerships with communities to address health disparities.