In January, I celebrated my 41st birthday at a restaurant in Bloomington, Indiana. I assembled what I considered an unlikely group of women to fellowship and celebrate with me.
Six of the women were graduate students like me, but not all students in the School of Education; one was a new professor, and two of the women were sorority sisters of mine. Out of the six graduate students, four of the women were Black doctoral students in various stages of their education, from the first year to ABD, all but dissertation.
The conversations that evening ranged from relationships to books to pop culture, but became very serious when the lone professor asked two of the Black graduate students about their research and experiences as Black graduate students. Needless to say, the women were all open to sharing their experiences.
The two ladies that were in the process of writing their dissertations had much to say about their experience as doctoral students; particularly about their feelings of isolation, frustration and loneliness.
They felt that they had not been properly mentored by White faculty, nor were they able to develop healthy, professional relationships within their respective departments. When there were Black faculty members in their departments, they felt like they were competing with other students of color for their time or sensed the faculty were themselves frustrated and overwhelmed.
As the spring semester of the recent school year progressed, I began to understand what the two ladies expressed that evening regarding their experiences in academia. I found myself feeling isolated and frustrated by the very process itself.
I’d been informed that I may not be funded for the coming year and should actively seek funding from other sources. Really? But this cannot be happening.
My White peers in previous conversations expressed that they had faculty looking out for them, making sure they received ample funding or been asked to participate in future research. At times the funding was in excess of what they needed. Some had been guaranteed funding for four years prior to their admission. What? Why hadn’t anyone explained this to me?
It was during this time that I began to understand why so many students of color find it difficult to succeed at this level of the game. It is also why so many faculty of color fail to become tenured professors in the academy. They lack the mentoring from senior faculty or collaborations with peers on research.
Now this is not to say that some don’t learn to navigate the waters, but when discussions about these feelings of isolation, frustration and loneliness take place between Black graduate students and Black faculty, often the advice of the faculty for a student is, “Wait until you finish because it will only get worse.”
As the semester drew to a close and there was still no resolution to my funding issue for the coming school year, I decided that I could not be timid in my approach. I told a White faculty member that I needed funding or else I would be forced to quit the program.
I expressed that I was not like some of the other graduate students. My father was not a professor at the university nor was I well connected politically or socially. I didn’t come from a family with money and couldn’t just call my parents for a check to cover my tuition. I didn’t just want to earn a Ph.D. because it was the only degree that I hadn’t earned in my life.
I would be the first in my family to complete such a task and needed to do so in order to further my professional aspirations. I was the lone Black student (or any student of color from the United States for that matter) in the curriculum studies department looking for some help continuing my education. I was willing to work in any capacity available just to stay on the path. I told her I needed a mentor that would look out for me during my academic stay and truly develop my professional skills as a future teacher educator.
Needless to say, my pleas didn’t fall on deaf ears and she advocated on my behalf for the funding I needed at least for another year.
I know that I could possibly be in the same predicament at the end of the next school year. I sympathize with students of color in higher education that may be experiencing similar, if not worse, situations.
Education is a business just like any other, and buzzwords like diversity and equity are used because they sound good on marketing materials. It’s the people within institutions of higher learning that must be committed to diversity and equity in education.
Students of color in doctoral programs shouldn’t feel like they are meeting a diversity quota. At predominantly White institutions we are often the only face of color or, at best, there may be a handful at any given time. To look at the faculty of these institutions and see very few faces that look like yours is an understatement.
It really makes me question how committed universities are to equity and diversity in education, especially at this level.
Alandra Harris-Hasan is a Ph.D. student at Indiana University Bloomington.