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Underrepresented Minorities in Science: Hardships and Pride Forge an African-American Physicist


I have known many African Americans who have attended majority institutions to pursue graduate degrees. The majority of them have told me horror story after horror story. Mentorship and encouragement had not been present; we won't even speak of issues of retention. In fact, professors have come out and told these students that--in their opinion--the only reason they were accepted into the program was because of their ethnic background (and that was a mild way of expressing this thought). I have been told of times when fellow majority graduate students would sabotage experiments. There are other stories of students taking old materials from an established student file system and not sharing them with minority students until (maybe) the day before finals. What is that?!? These accounts go on and on.

So, why would I put myself in a position to endure these hardships? After all, no one should have to fight and compete for the opportunity to obtain knowledge. But my experiences have established the foundations for the work that I ultimately hope to do.

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, I established, early on, a desire to do my part to make a difference in my community; that's my responsibility, my duty. As an undergraduate at Morehouse College, I was an athlete and involved with various programs geared toward the enrichment of our youth. I was proud to be a part of the Atlanta University Center (AUC), which, in addition to Morehouse College, included other historically black institutions--Morehouse School of Medicine, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Morris Brown College, and the Interdenominational Theological Center. I feel that I was properly nurtured and prepared to take on life's challenges, whether those challenges lie on an intellectual, spiritual, or social plane.

I chose to study physics as the result of the love and influence of others. I love the application of theory and the unlimited scope and use of physics. Furthermore, I was influenced by African-American male physicists and was fortunate to have the opportunity to establish personal relationships with them. These experiences have reinforced my opinion that there is a desperate need for responsible African-American scientists and educators and that I have the capability of being among them. I have observed and now embody the commitment, patience, and responsibility associated with careers in research and teaching.

Thus, I made the decision to go on to graduate school to study physics. I walked in the door confident in myself as a strong black man, as a man of Morehouse should be, equipped with full armor, ready for battle. Knowing that I would be the first African-American student to enter this department in some time really put me on the defensive. To my surprise, I found older graduate students willing to sit down with me and talk about the dynamics of the department. They offered me their personal files of old class materials. They invited me to parties and bars. Strange. But don't get too excited about my good fortune. I found that this was just good timing.

There are African Americans who have come into my department after me and they are being treated the way I expected to be treated coming in. As a result, I try to make myself as available as they need me to be in order for us to deal with any situation. But, you ask, "Why are these students treated differently?" Some of the treatment you receive is based on the personality of the individual you are dealing with. And some of the treatment you receive is based on how people perceive you as an individual, whether they like you or not. I feel that my experiences encompassed a combination of both. People at my institution know that I really don't care about their feelings or thoughts of me. They will, however, respect me and there's nothing they can do about it. That's my attitude and my will, and I impose it on others--fair or not. They knew that when I walked into the door.

This mindset doesn't quite cure everything. I still have to deal with stereotypes, whether or not they're in the realm of science. If I go to the grocery store, the bookstore, or the gym, people want to know who I play ball for. I tell them that I play for the American Physical Society. When I go to a conference, people tend to think I'm intellectually challenged. Body language and conversation quality can reveal a great deal about a person, especially when you compare similar interactions with white counterparts.

How do we remedy these problems? Our representation in technical fields must improve. This will help. Not because we want others to see us and appreciate us; we've spent too many years trying to gain the approval of others. We want to be able to see and appreciate ourselves. This is what makes us strong--love of self. If, in the process, other people can appreciate us, that's even better.

It is not as simple as offering incentives. Fellowships are nice. I have a Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need ( GAANN) Fellowship, but this was not necessarily a motivating factor for me. After all, I was already well into my graduate work before I was awarded this fellowship. It is an exposure and an appreciation for science that must be established to make the difference. And mentoring is key. For example, my parents encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be, to get a good job, and be the best at whatever it was I wanted to do. But I didn't know what it was. I had no model. I just knew that I was supposed to go to school and do well, be twice as good as my white counterpart to make it in this world. My parents are true survivors. They worked hard all of their lives, never having the opportunity to earn college degrees. My father has a 6th-grade education and my mother went far enough to earn her high school diploma. They taught me everything they knew, but my exposure was not complete in terms of the vast number of opportunities available to me. Having good mentors in the AUC helped me to establish where I want to be in this world. Now, I will become the first in my family to obtain a Ph.D. We all have to go back and show our youth what we can do--what they can do. In a world where our young people are consumed with having a good time and "gettin' paid," we have to show them that immediate gratification is short-term. Money will come; money will go. Self-pride, worth, and awareness are forever!