The Myth of Overachievement

Photo:  AdobeStock

Photo: AdobeStock


There are two words that literally make my skin crawl. One is moist and the overachiever. Moist is just an awkward word, it doesn’t sound pleasant or healthy. But the word overachiever, this word is not a compliment even though many people try to use it as one. I view this word as an insult. 


Webster defines overachiever as: one who achieves success over and above the standard or expected. So when I hear this word attached to my name or even in the same sentence as not only my name but that of other students of color—especially Black students—I get vehemently angry. Overachievement is a myth. 


I recently had a professor type in an email that me and a fellow student, were being “overachievers” because we were leaving for an academic conference earlier than the rest of class. The email read “are you being overachievers again?” 


The word “again” in this scenario implies that this professor has associated this term with me and the other student for quite some time. But also, the whole sentence/question insinuates that I am doing more than I should as a scholar when in fact presenting and attending academic conferences is the sequential thing graduate students are supposed to do. 


So this is where the issue lies: Black students are weighed down by the burden to do twice as much work to get half as far. Truly, we have all heard that old adage and the truth is that is closer to being fact than it is not. Black students are still underrepresented in graduate programs across the country, so to use the word “overachiever” to describe anyone that is a minority is a mistake. It is worse than a mistake, it is tone deaf. It is disrespectful. 


The actions of minority students only appear to be “overachievement” because students with access to privilege that their status and race/ethnicity affords them have become complacent and albeit mediocre. This is not to say that this is everyone; however, it is to say that faculty must take this into consideration in their dealings with Black students. The NSF released a report in 2016, stating that African Americans made up only 6.6% of conferred doctorate degrees. That is 2,360 to our white counterparts 25,524, and in the year 2016 a total of 54,904 doctoral degrees were completed.  Not only is that gap large, so is the gap between Black/African American students (those who are U.S. Citizens) who use their own resources to fund their advanced degrees—39.7 percent—compared to white (U.S. Citizens) 19.8%.  


As I read this report, I am reminded of my place in society so to speak. That for a long time institutions of higher learning were founded on the very premise of my, and others who look like me, exclusion. In reality, we still have the “First Black” something in 2018. Mareena Robinson Snowden was the first Black woman to earn her Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from MIT, the Mecca of the STEM field—it is 2018.


So I beg to question: how can any Black [graduate] student truly be an overachiever if the Ivory Tower has been blocking our achievement for centuries? The only answer is: that faculty have set their expectations lower for Black and Brown students, and when they see us doing something that would be expected of any non-Black student they are surprised. Why? Because it is surprising to see someone thriving when they have been given little resources to do so; however, isn’t that the a common theme when it comes to the Black community? Turning lemons into lemonade time and time again when the system was set up against us; correction, the system was not made for us. 


Overachievement is a myth when it comes to us, in all actuality it is really a lie. It is impossible to overachieve when you are barely achieving. Every day that we as Black folks exist and take up space in the academy is a resistance to the very foundation and ideals of many of the founding members of these institutions. It is time for faculty to realize that their words mean things and they too—no matter how “liberal” they seem—are perpetuating white supremacy and hierarchies. 


Calling out Black students on in a condescending way for their achievements and decisions on how they choose to survive and navigate the extremely white space of graduate school is emotionally taxing and disrespectful. Students who are already struggling with Imposter Syndrome, now have one more reason to believe that they do not belong or that they are not doing the “right” thing. 


Lastly, not that I need to explain myself, but I am one of few graduate students presenting in the pre-conference seminar the day before the whole academic conference starts. This seminar is about my field of race, sports, and communication. So in actuality, I am not overachieving nor am I underachieving, I am doing what any good scholar does and that is stay relevant in the ongoing conversation about their area of expertise. When I found myself explaining this to my professor, I felt as though I was defending my right to be a part of the academy and that is how Black and Brown students feel everyday while they sit in class. 


Faculty and staff alike should seek to support their student academic endeavors with questions of “How can I help?” and “What support do you need?” versus admonishing them for their actions. As the numbers stated above illustrated, we one of the groups that need it the most. We spend the most money on our advance degrees hoping that there is a return on investment but we only make up less than ten percent of those holding doctoral degrees. We will never be “overachievers” and we are fighting daily to achieve minor and major things because of the countless institutional barriers and determinants we face. 


About the Author

Joy Woods is a Master's Student at the University of Iowa who studies the sociology of sports and health communication within the education system. When she is not busy completing work for class she enjoys writing for her blog, running with her dog, and hunting down guests for her podcast.

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