During my time at Purdue, myself and a few other graduate students of color coordinated a massive recruiting effort to increase the number of black and brown graduate students in the Purdue Chemistry Graduate Program. The recruiting program was remarkably successful and continues to be even after the original lead team graduated. What I believe made this student-led effort successful was the comprehensive program life cycle. The Chemistry Diversity Initiative, as it is now called, not only focused on student recruitment but also student-led mentoring and residential professional development workshops by recent alumni of color. The cycle continues as students who were once recruits then became recruiters and mentors. After graduation, alumni are invited back to host a residential professional development workshop. Beyond being self-sustaining, it also achieved another important mission, it helps to develop a pipeline of exceptional [diverse] talent.  

Don’t be the exception

Throughout this recruiting experiment, myself and the other student leaders worked hard to not be seen by the incoming students or the faculty as the exceptions. Instead, we wanted everyone to know, that like us, this group of incoming students were exceptional. Sounds like semantics, right? Let me explain. To be the exception means to be anomalous, or as defined by Oxford:

“a person or thing that is excluded from a general statement or does not follow a rule”

Oxford Dictionary

The primary focus of our recruiting effort was to get more undergraduate students of color to apply to the graduate program. By doing so, all the students that were accepted met the strict technical requirements in place by the graduate school. With that, we were confident that each student who was admitted was deemed capable of graduating with a PhD. Nevertheless, there were a few factors we knew could pose unique challenges for this population of students such as impostor syndrome and implicit bias particularly from faculty inexperienced with mentoring students of color. However, there were strategies in place to mitigate these foreseen challenges. Because we maintained the high bar, we knew these students could make it through the program.  Knowing this, the planning team went to great lengths to demonstrate that we were not the exceptions, but rather, we were exceptional.

Choose to be exceptional

Being exceptional comes down to a set of behaviors. In an article by Murray Newlands published on Inc.com, he describes eight things exceptional people do every day. See the full article here. I find that four particularly resonate with me.

1. Exceptional people learn from mistakes.           

I make mistakes all the time. We all do. But whether that mistake causes you to give up will determine if you are exceptional. The benefit of the mentoring aspect of our recruitment initiative described above is that during the mentoring sessions, we could inform the younger students that it is not their mistakes that disqualify them from reaching the next level, it’s how you respond.  A bad test score, a bad experiment, a wrong decision, these are a normal part of research, science, and life. But whether you can bounce back afterwards is the part you have to demonstrate. Sometimes, you may feel just one small mistake is enough to prove you don’t belong. False. You can overcome and still succeed.

2. Exceptional people remain humble.

Being exceptional will eventually ensure success. Success will give rise to confidence. So far so good. But too much confidence can lead to arrogance which will limit future opportunities and success. Jeff Boss, a former contributor at Forbes, stated that remaining humble increases situational awareness, improves decision-making, and better acceptance of feedback. Being humble can cause more people to rally around you at your highs and soften the landing when things don’t go well.

3. Exceptional people push the limits.

Learning from mistakes and remaining humble positions one nicely to begin pushing the limits. Exceptional people can go beyond what was thought to be possible because they resist doubt, rethink imaginary barriers, and are comfortable with uncertainty. Pushing the limits is particularly necessary in research where success means going to the edge of what’s known and discovering something novel.

4. Exceptional people have a higher purpose.

Exceptional people realize that they are reaching for something beyond any near-term challenges. This mindset really helps one maintain perspective. For many of the recruits we connected with, they were the first one to go to college, earn a STEM degree, or go to graduate school. Early on, the motivation is front of mind, but sometimes this can get lost when preparing for a pivotal test. But even amid their challenges, exceptional people have mechanisms to remind them of their higher purpose.  

He said it. Not me 😉

Closing remarks

Being exceptional is a choice that everyday people like you and me can make. It is a set of behaviors that allows us to rise to the top no matter the circumstance. Exceptional people learn from their mistakes, remain humble, push the limits, and have a higher purpose. The students in our recruitment program were exceptional, not the exception. You too can be exceptional. If you enjoyed the post, leave a like, consider subscribing and sharing, it really helps! Thanks!

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