I went to a majority minority high school on the west side of Indianapolis. Racial minorities made up greater than 80% of the student population; however, when I entered my honors and AP classes, I found myself in the minority. In an 18-person class there were likely fewer than 5 students of color but once the bell rang and the students emerged from their classes, I was reminded of this relative isolation. But I find myself grateful for this experience because in addition to the traditional academic training this social conditioning prepared me for the next phases of my life. I was comfortable being the only black person, and at times minority, in a classroom. I was adept at adjusting my culture indicators to fit in. Furthermore, I was aware that I would be burdened and privileged with representing more than myself. More on this point in a future post.
This comfort and confidence was helpful many times when navigating the ups-and-downs along my collegiate journey. I never doubted that I belonged, so quitting was never an option. Many students of color whom I have mentored have asked me how I navigated these highly technical and competitive spaces. To this, I have three basic ideas that I pass on.
1. Have a strategy.
A strategy allows me to go into uncertain situations ready to adapt for any outcome. For instance, in undergrad, I would always give myself the first exam of the new class to figure out a few things.
(1) How the professor generates questions. (2) What material I should have studied. (3) How to be more prepared for the next exam. This strategy in graduate school prepared during questioning by my committee during both my qualifying exam and dissertation defense.
2. Be consistent (Recognize Patterns).
Being consistent allows colleagues and collaborators to know what to expect from you. Moreover, it helps mentors to recognize patterns that bring success and areas where more growth needs to occur.
3. Have an outlet.
Having a group of people that allow you to be yourself is a necessity. I remember in graduate school I had an experiment fail after exhaustive preparation. I knew this was part of the process, but I still needed a network of people that I could take a walk with, grab some coffee, vent without judgment, and then get back to work.
The success and resilience I have gained has been in large part because of these three rules and my comfort in being the “only one”. One semester in graduate school, I attended a conference in Florida where I was the only black scientist. Having a strategy and extensive preparation, in addition to recognizing this all too familiar pattern, I did not hesitate to deliver my invited oral presentation or ask technical questions to the other presenters. Nevertheless, I have not been left unscathed by the overall poor minority representation.
I can’t stop counting other minorities.
Since recognizing the racial disparities in these areas, I have developed a habit of always surveying the racial landscape of every meeting. In school, I could tell you how many students of color were in every class and at the end of every meeting I could do the same for employees of color. I have chosen to not let this be an exercise in futility, but rather to motivate me to participate in recruitment at all levels, undergrad, grad school, and professionally, to build a pipeline of diverse talent. I hope that by the time my children reach the heights of their careers, wherever that may be, there will be such rich diversity that they find my stories unfamiliar.
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Edited By Dr. Nicholas Pulliam