Resilience: My Pathway to the Information Technology Professoriate
While recently attending a conference in Atlanta, a scholarly gentleman and I struck up a conversation regarding academic life and multidisciplinary research. When asked, I told him that I was in the information systems/technology field. “Wow! How did you get into that?” he asked me. “There are not a lot of sistas in that area.”
Sadly, he is correct, as data from the National Science Foundation, the National Center for Education Statistics and others confirm. I had to stop and reflect on how I landed in IS/IT. My parents weren’t engineers, physicians, mathematicians, scientists or corporate executives, but nevertheless high expectations were the norm in my home.
I clearly remember my parents, particularly my father, working to ensure that I was enrolled in Advanced Placement science and mathematics courses, such as algebra, calculus, chemistry, physics and trigonometry. My parents’ insistency and tenacity continue to serve me well.
My senior year, I chose to enroll in Calculus I and Trigonometry concurrently. My parents supported the decision, but my calculus teacher questioned my presence in the class. The course was “prestigious,” and the students were the children of doctors, Ph.D.s, corporate executives and high-profile local entrepreneurs … and there I was. I wanted out, and I made my desire known to my principal. But he wouldn’t let me withdraw from the course. He was the first person I remember talking to me about the critical need for minority representation in the STEM disciplines.
His stern but motivational discourse stuck. I stayed in the class and completed the year with honors.
Ultimately, I went on to college and graduated from Clark Atlanta University and Georgia Tech as a participant in the Dual-Degree Engineering Program. While in the program, I worked part-time, interned at IBM and traveled from coast to coast. These industry experiences fostered my interest in software and application development. The people and relationships that I have had have been instrumental to my development, even more so than the academics. The late DaLinda Brown-Clark, the former director of the dual degree program, was one of them. So was Vivian Usher, the former administrative assistant of CAU’s physics department. There was also Dr. Young Kim and Dr. Edward Davis at CAU, and Dr. Paul Griffith at Georgia Tech, as well as numerous others that I don’t have the space to name.
During a recent discussion with an aspiring doctoral candidate, I was asked how I felt being one of the few Black faculty members in my field. “Do you ever get asked why you research Black issues?” she asked me. I told her that there are indeed those who question the value of research examining the Black and African diaspora. They question whether such research is “scholarly,” or “fits into accepted norms.” One professor suggested to me that those issues are simply “derailed sidetracks.” When faced with this myopic thinking, I remind myself that IT is based on providing social and policy equity.
My entry into the IT professoriate has been both a maze of welcoming and uninviting occurrences. At critical times during my journey, the people I’ve encountered have offered encouragement and mentoring. But the obstacles don’t stop once you’ve completed the doctoral program. They persist even as a tenured faculty member. The hurdles,
however, were and continue to be overcome with focus, resilience and support.
— Dr. Fay Cobb Payton is an associate professor of Information Systems/Technology at North Carolina State University.
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