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The Subtle Truths of Diversity and Inclusion in Academia and How Mentorship Combats Its Negative Effects

WOMEN IN STEM FIELDS

I have always had a passion and longing for education. As a child, my mother and father groomed me for education. With their constant-positive reinforcement-they were sure of my future success as a professional of some sort. Whether it be a doctor, dentist or lawyer, I was going to be educated and successful. Thus, throughout my early educational career, I worked hard believing what my parents said was true and believing that I would have an equal access to that said “success”. I also believed that the dynamic of many black families was like this, to ensure a life of betterment and educational attainment for their children.

Because I had the opportunity to attend Mississippi Valley State University (MVSU), a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) during my undergraduate studies, I had no regard for “diversity” or “inclusion” disclosures in academia. I was accustomed to black classmates, black professors, and black mentors; it was an educational oasis for young, bright black students. However, the goal of MVSU was to prepare its students for the realities of the “real world” and not much of it included people of color in the professional or academic setting. Furthermore, I had never considered myself as different, “underrepresented”, or “economically disadvantaged” until I reached graduate school. Graduate school was like a “daze of categories” instead of a place of academics, inclusion and acceptance.

After completing both my Bachelors and Master’s degrees in Mathematics, I decided to apply to bioinformatics doctoral programs, which shifted my discipline and research focus to biomedical research. I planned to apply my quantitative and analytical skills to disease disparities specifically breast cancer mortality disparities. Upon entering my first semester of the doctoral program I felt that I was the “token” black face of the majority white department. This was further confirmed when I observed that I received the annual “diversity” fellowship. Although, I was not upset about receiving the fellowship, I was concerned that there were no other financial awards or opportunities for people of color, but this single tokenized one. Then I began to take courses and I felt a sense of isolation. In most of my classes, I was the only black student and this was intimidating. Some days I felt uncomfortable to speak in class and sometimes felt that I would be criticized for my different, yet “simplistic” views.

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Because I was sure of my academic success, I began to look for resources to help combat my feelings of isolation, unacceptance, and anxiety. Surprisingly, there were many resources on campus that proactively addressed the fears and anxieties in which I was experiencing. Although, these resources were available, I felt if the culture around diversity and inclusion was inviting upon initial entrance into the program, I would have thrived more and felt a sense of belonging. Obtaining a doctoral degree is very stressful and the added stress of being accepted only deters and negatively impacts individuals, especially those from minority backgrounds, from being their optimal and authentic selves.

I can attribute my success thus far in the doctoral program to the energy I devoted in seeking professors and faculty who looked like me and would be able to help guide me through the program. These mentors included past professors, previous internships supervisors, and faculty on the new campus. My advisor also helped me to gain confidence by introducing me to professional societies. Through these societies I have been able to engage in diversity and inclusion work in order to change the atmosphere of academia and research for future generations.

The experiences of young, black professionals is in need of change. I believe that the few black, female professionals, need to continue to open doors for the generations to come, by remaining present in the face of resistance, staying courageous, and being encouraged. My motto is “once you get to a place of success in life, go back and bring someone along with you”. Mentorship is extremely important in the academic climate, especially for students who come from minority backgrounds. It allows them to be able to see and relate to people who look like them as well as motivate them and ensure their academic success in graduate school.

 
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Brandi Patrice Smith is a native of Greenwood, Mississippi and is a current doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her current research is focused on understanding the biological factors of breast cancer disparities.