The stagnant percentage of college students identifying as black over the past few years can make it seem as though the race has ceased progressing. However, the gains black America has made in areas typically reserved for the majority shows another picture of their progress.
The Rhodes Scholarship is one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world. It was established from the will of a white supremacist who wanted to further the education of the Caucasian males. A decade ago, it was rare for a black student to win a Rhodes Scholarship. In fact, the 2008 class of Rhodes Scholars contained no black students. Now, 114 years after the scholarship began, 10 of the 32 Rhodes Scholars selected for 2018 identify as black. Measures like these reveal a shining avenue of progress for black America.
Being the “only one”
One of the exciting (and terrifying) things about being a minority in STEM is finding myself trailblazing opportunities and experiences. Minorities in higher education, especially in STEM, must deal with the pressure of not only being visually distinct, but simultaneously representing an entire race.
Human nature dictates that people tend to gravitate to those who share something in common. When you take your first step into a lecture hall where you are the “only one,” this adage truly becomes a reality. At times like this, it is important to remember the common thread that unites you with your classmates: a vested interest in a subject matter. This common thread is what truly propels all groups of people to educational and vocational success.
Going against the grain
I spent a summer working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which is the world’s leading particle physics laboratory, following my passion for the subject. At CERN, I did not meet another black female or chemical engineer. While I reveled in being an anomaly and providing my unique viewpoint to problem solving, I returned to the states with a burning passion to motivate more diverse students to apply to work at CERN to show the world of particle physics the significance of the black perspective. One of the unique aspects of African culture is the emphasis on community and teamwork, which is often lost in Western culture where self-sufficiency is praised and collaboration is often hindered by pride. It is essential that all groups of people understand that progress is not hindered by differences, but rather it is enhanced.
A call to action
A highly instrumental aspect of empowering black America means that black people must actively seek and support future generations to continue to break down barriers and revolutionize the perception of the black American. This means dedicating time each week to cultivating our progeny, whether it be through tutoring, mentoring, coaching, inspiring or simply lending a helping hand. My avenue of choice is the National Society of Black Engineers, where I work each week to provide educational and professional opportunities for elementary through graduate students in my community. Diversifying the scientific landscape will require minorities who can pursue science to fight for equal representation from an insider standpoint and serve as role models. More educators are needed to bring scientific curriculum and research to areas where such innovation is not fully explored, and political barriers to education must be identified and removed. The black community must strive towards a society where black people can walk into places like CERN, Wall Street or even Congress and both cast off the “only one” persona and be fully acknowledged for their capabilities without having to prove themselves.