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Predominantly White Institutions, Black Women Grad Students and a Sense of Belonging

As a Black woman who attended a historically Black institution of higher learning, I had access to a variety of Black female faculty, peers and other support mechanisms that helped foster a sense of belonging. Without question, my HBCU experience was extremely uplifting, and the supportive culture that existed played a prominent role in my growth and development.

However, as a Black female graduate student at a predominantly White Institution, I find that experiences that lend themselves to building a sense of community comparable to my HBCU occur less often.

For a majority of PWIs, the lack of faculty of color who can serve as mentors and advisers, especially those who are Black, serves as a barrier to fostering supportive environments for underrepresented minority students. A report in 2017 indicated that Black women faculty members represented 1 percent of all full professors, 3 percent of all associate professors and 3 percent of all assistant professors on faculty at degree-granting institutions.

Minority students often seek out students and faculty who are similar to them or share similar experiences. Black female graduate students have reported that Black female mentors have a deeper understanding of the issues and challenges that Black women face in higher education. The lack of role models for Black women at PWIs often results in little to no opportunities to interact with faculty members who share similar cultural and life experiences and values. Further, the underrepresentation of Black women faculty conveys negative messages that contribute to feelings of being unwelcomed and devalued by the institution.

Poor social adjustment also has been identified as a challenge to Black women at PWIs. For example, for the first time in my life, I was the only Black student in one of my courses. When this occurs, it often results in students having to serve as a “spokesperson” on behalf of their race. Subsequently, students feel “othered,” spotlighted and uncomfortable when they want to simply participate like the other students in class. Many Black women also struggle to establish peer relationships and engage in social functions that lead to feelings of isolation, frustration and being misunderstood by peers, faculty and staff. As a result, many Black female graduate students either withdraw or transfer to other universities.

Microaggressions, whether direct or indirect, can also serve as barriers to Black women graduate students and can have a profound impact on their graduate student experience. In fact, the occurrences many experience are so profound that people take to social media to share their experiences in blogs such as Microaggression: Power, Privilege, and Everyday Life and Share Your Narrative Blog. Racist and discriminatory behaviors toward students of color negatively impact graduate students’ persistence and degree completion.

However, more problematic is the effect of the intersection of sexist and racist (e.g., gendered racism) microaggressions that many Black women graduate students face. These microaggressions can be experienced on a daily basis and can be harmful to students’ mental and physical health. In sum, not only are microaggressions harmful to a student’s mental, emotional and physical well-being, but for Black students these types of negative experiences further contribute to a lack of sense of belonging.

Though addressing issues of a lack of sense of belonging will require deliberate efforts from institutions, there are a number of strategies that Black women graduate students can use to help create the mechanisms necessary for academic success, degree completion and sense of belonging. For example, I have identified support networks and communities at my institution that provide opportunities for me to interact with women who share experiences and values similar to my own. These groups of individuals include peers, faculty and staff who provide a sense of community similar to what I experienced at my HBCU.

I joined a choir whose members include men and women of color and is housed in the Black Cultural Center (BCC), where I work during the school year. This has allowed me to develop my peer and professional network across campus, as well as build relationships with faculty and staff that I otherwise may not have met. Events sponsored by the BCC have afforded me the opportunity to also meet individuals outside of campus whose research is committed to the advancement of underrepresented minorities and women in education.

Additionally, my role as an executive board member in the Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) has allowed me to expand my support network by interacting with other Black female graduate and professional students. We celebrate each other’s successes and uplift each other in times of failure and need. For institutions that are slow to create a sense of belonging for Black women graduate students, being proactive and seeking out organizations and support groups that cater to individuals like themselves should be a priority. Additionally, if there is a lack of opportunities, take the initiative to start a campus-wide network.

Though ample evidence exists that points to the impact of cultivating a sense of belonging, many PWIs have been slow to foster environments necessary to support students of color, especially Black women graduate students.

One approach for PWIs could be to increase the number of Black female faculty, which can help to alleviate the isolation Black women graduate students often experience. In many cases, Black women faculty and staff have experienced social isolation, gendered racism and chilly campus climates that allow them to mentor Black women graduate students on how to handle these issues.

More importantly, institutions that are intentional in their efforts to hire, support and retain Black women faculty communicate a message of being committed to building a sense of community that will continue to be a priority as the landscape of higher education continues to become more diverse.

I challenge institutions of higher education to recognize the worth of Black women faculty and take action to support them in any way possible. Don’t just talk about it, be about it. As the Nike slogan goes, “Just Do It.”

Torrie A. Cropps is a doctoral student in the Department of Agricultural Sciences Education and Communication at Purdue University. You can follow her on Twitter @ScholarCropps.

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