Written by Dr Malika Grayson
This post originally appeared on https://thephdwriteup.wordpress.com/
The very concept of being a graduate student is one that would weigh heavily on anyone’s mind, body and soul. Not only are you compelled to think in a manner differently than you would have as an undergraduate student, but you are also expected to work independently, for some, for the first time. Now imagine the added stress of staking your claim in a male dominated program while being not just a woman, but a Black woman in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics)—two for two, if you ask me. I know people get uncomfortable when you pull out the race card, but it is real (Our recent election results prove this). As much as we would like to acknowledge the many improvements in our society, and how accepting we believe the world has become, the reality is that intolerance is still very much a part of our daily lived experiences, in both the classroom and the workforce. From the discrimination and racial slurs against black college students to the outright disrespect towards black professionals on planes (apparently regardless of your numerous credentials), forgive me if I do not take my place as a minority student lightly.
When I began visiting different STEM graduate programs, I immediately noticed a common trend: Where were the people who looked like me? Where were the flourishing beautiful and brilliant black women and men? Did I miss something? I knew STEM fields were struggling with diversity but this was ridiculous. Despite my obvious disappointment, I chose to pursue a path in Mechanical Engineering because I felt as though my contributions were needed—oblivious to the struggles that would await me. While I signed up to be one of few minority students, I had no idea that I would end up being the only woman of color in my PhD program for the duration of my time at graduate school. Being a person of color pursuing higher education is not easy, as there is the constant fear of being discriminated against because of the way you look. Sometimes ignorant comments are made and instead of being the “angry black woman”, you let the comment slide and blame it on sheer ignorance. You become entrapped in the dichotomy of “stand up for yourself” versus “ignore them” knowing there will never be a right answer or reaction. There is no right answer or reaction—I have done both and I know of several others who have done the same. I will admit, one of my biggest regrets was being, at times, too timid while letting too many things slide. I feared that if I was too assertive, it would harm instead of help me, and cause someone would hold that grudge against me. Regardless of my reaction, I am always disappointed that I’m still forced to be in those situations. Far too often do I find myself subjected to unwarranted comments or the infamous warning, “I hope this does not offend you.” I should be privy to a place where we are all like-minded enough to not offend, disrespect, and judge one another. Unfortunately, none of us are and this problem will go beyond your graduate program. In the real world, your qualifications will be questioned no matter how hard you have worked. Why? Simply because we don’t “look” the part.
I have been fortunate enough to have a group of strong black women in my life that I could depend on through the tougher times. I have also been able to depend on people who do not look like me as allies. Not everyone has been that blessed. The key here is TRUST. If you cannot find people you can trust, no matter their ethnicity, the road is going to be very challenging. Choose wisely. There is a saying, ‘people want you to be successful but not more successful than them.’ I was able to align myself with people who wanted that for me, but I have also been aligned with individuals who challenged me and tried to restrain me from exceling. If you aren’t careful, you can slide down instead of climbing up. I always thought I was confident and could get past anything but my confidence has been challenged more times than I could count which makes it easy to give up, but don’t!
The lesson here is that in graduate school you already feel like your foundation has been rocked. There are going to be people during this time that either purposefully make you feel incapable or unknowingly forget that the journey for a minority is completely different for a number of reasons. This is the point where you choose: to be defined by the opinions of others that believe despite our credentials, we as a minority population are still not “ready” for higher learning (questioning abilities along the way because of the color of your skin) or to continue to work hard and elevate beyond their expectations, leaving a legacy in place that will never be questioned. We do not give up, that is not what we do. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler did not do it, Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander did not do it, and you are not going to do it. Stand and fight, flourish and overcome as you proudly join an elite group, while continuing to pave the way for the strong and resilient women beside you.
Unapologetic Black Woman with a PhD
Dr Grayson has a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell University. She is the second black woman in Cornell’s history to get a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. She personally mentors other minority women in higher education through her instagram page @blackgirlsguide2gradschool and is on the board of directors for Jelani Girls Inc, a cultural enrichment program for young girls. She is also an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc, SWE and NSBE. Currently, Dr Grayson is a Systems Engineer in the prestigious Future Technical Leaders rotational program at Northrop Grumman Corporation.
Dr Grayson is very passionate about motivating people to be the best they can be through inspiring posts and motivational speaking engagements.