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On Being the Only

Although I spent the first 17 years of my life in a black world—the segregated communities and schools of Birmingham, Alabama—I've spent the past 38 years under very different circumstances. In 1963, I graduated from George Washington Carver High School at the top of my class and left Birmingham for Seattle, where I enrolled in the University of Washington. There were few African-American students at the university and fewer still in the sciences. Of the 800 men and women in my residence hall, only three of the women were black. The large lecture classes might have included several African-American students in the beginning of the term, but over the weeks the numbers dwindled, and over the years all too often I was "the only." As an African-American women in the sciences, I was a stranger in a strange land.

The misfit was complete: socially, psychologically, and academically. The course demands of my major (premed and zoology), coupled with the struggles to address deficiencies that were uncovered from my earlier "separate and unequal" education, gave me little time to socialize within the small, mostly commuting, black student community. My social isolation and segregated experiences strained interactions on both sides in my dealings with whites. My world, previously viewed in black and white, was forced open, and I began to learn about, accept, and enjoy other kinds of diversity among people. I found that exposure and interaction in living and learning environments could, for the most part, cure what years of separation had produced on both sides.

Academically I was stereotyped as perhaps being not too bright. There were counselors, professors, and teaching assistants who had to be convinced over and over that 1) I may have been underprepared, but I was not dumb; 2) I would do the work to prove them mistaken; and 3) I wasn't leaving. As I began to prove myself in the department, I gained acceptance and opportunities for more challenges, such as participating in the departmental honors program, where I was able to gain valuable experiences in seminars, and serving as an undergraduate teaching assistant to the intro class. An African-American male student told me that my presence and success in the zoology department encouraged his decision to pursue that major. In addition, I found a wonderful, supportive mentor who encouraged my pursuit of graduate study.

Life's lessons

Over the years, I've learned many lessons. These are perhaps the most important:

  • Do not expect to be loved or accepted as an insider, but give and expect respect.
  • Do your job well; do not cut corners. It is always better to overprepare.
  • Do not self-promote, but do expect honest recognition for your contributions.
  • Play straight and expect others to play straight with you.
  • As you do not wish to be judged by your race, do not judge others thusly.
  • Find your voice, but learn when to speak and when to hold your tongue.
  • Do not let people stereotype you as single issue; think and work beyond yourself.
  • Take the high road; enemies usually self-destruct.
  • Network, network, network. Give to others without keeping score.
  • Find out who you are and work toward who you want to be; do not delude yourself, but neither should you accept others' limited expectations of you.
  • Expand your support structures—look to faith communities, sororities or fraternities, minority professional societies, service groups, housekeeping staff, and departmental secretaries.
  • Keep your eye on the long view; whatever it is, this too shall pass.
  • Learn how to learn and how to solve problems, then make each new adjustment as it is called for.

My adjustments in graduate school were easier because of the painful lessons I'd learned as an undergrad. I was still often the only African American, but I found a connection to the other women. I discovered that I had become strong and willful and that I needed to share this with the women who had not yet found their voice, strength, and will. I stopped expecting that my department would become my supporting community. I expanded my circle of support, giving as well as receiving sustenance. In my Ph.D. research group, led by a brilliant, young, white professor originally from Mississippi, I did find an intellectual community, support, acceptance, and appreciation for the gifts that I brought. I went confidently into a faculty position, again as the only, but no longer feeling isolated and alone. Shifting jobs, location, and circumstances, I moved to Washington, married, and changed career focus. And once again I found myself as the only. As I moved up in job responsibility, position, and power, I was once again challenged as to whether I belonged. The higher I climbed, the nastier and more vicious the challenges were when they came. But nastiness tends to reflect more on the challengers than on the challenged.

Shirley Malcom is the head of AAAS Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs. Dr. Malcom earned a Ph.D. in ecology from Pennsylvania State University and has authored many publications that focus on the recruitment and retention of women and minorities in science, mathematics, and engineering fields. For further information, please send e-mail to .

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