One of the Few: Experiences of a First-Year Graduate Student at a PWI
I really didn’t expect many differences between being an undergraduate and a graduate student a PWI. I just knew that I was excited to start at the next level and being one step closer to my career goals. But I also wasn’t sure what to expect at the same time, I wasn’t focused or aware of the obstacles that came along with being a black graduate student at a PWI. I knew that it would be tough and that I was the only black student in my incoming class. This wasn’t a major concern of mine though, being a biology major I was accustomed to seeing few black faces in my classes and major but I don’t think I was ready for the numbers to drop so dramatically. My program consisted of six departments, and among those I knew of two other black graduate students ahead of me and one black faculty.
Besides being one of the few black graduate students in my program I was aware of another challenge I would face in my first year, the classes. In undergrad, classes were not my strong suite, so I was prepared to struggle and to put in more effort than probably was necessary just to pass and stay in the program. After going through my first round of test, the excitement quickly went away and was replaced with the thought that I could potentially not be able to continue my graduate school career solely due to the classes. This thought haunted me up until I was completely done with my first year’s classes.
Along with taking classes we were required to do four rotations to find a lab in which we wanted to do our thesis research in. The normal obstacles that students face during this process include having to deal with issues such as the mentor or the research not being the right fit and possibly not getting along with the other members in the lab, which the PI takes into account when choosing a student for his lab. I too had to deal with those issues but being a student of color I was pressed with additional issues, such as if it came down to the PI having to choose between multiple students for the one spot he/she had available in the lab I wouldn’t get chosen not because the members in the lab didn’t like me, but because they didn’t take the chance to get to know me or talk to me because of them being uncomfortable because they’ve never had real interaction with black students. For them it’s easier to get along with the students who look like them and keeps them in their “safe zone”. I had to deal with the potential of not finding a home not because it wasn’t a good fit or I had issues with the members of the lab but mainly because I wasn’t given the chance due to people being uncomfortable.
It was also clear that the majority of the incoming students and older students in my program had little to no interaction with black students, shown by how little they talked me conversation compared to other students. Some didn’t even attempt to engage in conversation, which brought on the feeling of being isolated and that I didn’t belong. This sense of not belonging was increased while rotating in different labs I was constantly asked “Do you need help finding somewhere” as if I was lost every day. Or my personal favorite people trying their best look at my ID rather than speak because they wanted to see who I am and what’s my position.
Despite these feelings, I was able to find professors that I could to talk to about my struggles and the way that I felt. It took me going out of my comfort zone to find faculty that were willing to listen to my struggle and the feelings that I had. There will be professor who do not believe what you’re experiencing is real and will tell you that it’s in your head. You don’t want faculty like that in your corner. I also sought faculty of color at various positions outside of my department, which were very supportive and directed to me to resources on campus for minority graduate students, which helped me connect with other black graduate students who were feelings the same and had similar experiences.
I have now successfully completed my first-year classes and have found a lab. There I a few students in my incoming class that I have now become close with and can be myself along with students outside my department I have connected with. These obstacles do exist and won’t go away but there are ways to mitigate and overcome them.
You’re where you are for a reason and you belong.
About the Author
Edric Winford s PhD student in Neuroscience at the University of Kentucky from Chicago, Illinois. I graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a B.A. in Biology. My research focuses on the immune responses that occur during stroke in the brain. I hope to encourage other minorities to pursue careers in STEM by sharing my experiences and insight.