I wrote this two years ago during my first semester in grad school but most of these things I talk about still apply and I still grapple with a lot of these issues.
As if making the transition from college to graduate school is not difficult, it has to be complicated by the specter of race. All of the statistics are out there; African Americans are underrepresented in graduate school, especially Ph.D. programs. So should I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones? I graduated from Morehouse College this past May. I was one of the top 3 students in my department, presented at numerous conferences, president of my Psi Chi chapter, a McNair and NIMH-COR scholar, and invited to join Phi Beta Kappa during my senior year. So where is the issue? I do consider myself to be very lucky and blessed, but even with all of those accomplishments it is quite the adjustment to be made. The psychology department was definitely one of the top departments at Morehouse and it was also a familial unit. It was filled with faculty who made genuine investments in our futures and it also helped that many of your fellow students or brothers shared similar goals. We would spend hours in our cafeteria talking about anything from hip-hop to psychology to politics. It was very easy to relate to others because we were all in the same struggle: trying to dispel the stereotype of Black males not succeeding in academics. We were all well aware of the fact that while we were the majority population at Morehouse, once we went to graduate school that would no longer be the case.
We were constantly reminded of the fact that Morehouse would be different from the outside world we would be entering upon graduation. Our teachers would always make us aware of the fact that we would always have to be on our A game and that many times we would have to work much harder than our White counterparts in order to reach the same levels of success. We were also told to beware of becoming a native informant, a person who has to represent the entire group of which he or she is a part of. We all listened to these warnings, but at the same time I thought “It can’t be that difficult, I can make it through and I can hold my own with anyone.” I could not conceive the fact that with all of my accolades, I would have difficulties adjusting to graduate school. I knew the work would be hard, but I would be okay socially.
Orientation day at Georgia State University: I enter the room where all the incoming students are waiting for the day to start and I immediately realize that I am definitely not at Morehouse anymore. Approximately 20 people, mostly women, and only 2 other African Americans. I did not think too much of it, if anything I welcome it because it gives me an opportunity to meet people from backgrounds different than mine. Orientation day goes fine and I meet and mingle with people; I leave thinking that everything is going to go well and that I have nothing to worry about. Fast forward to the first day of my Statistics class and I get the times mixed up, showing up to class 30 minutes late. At that point I thought to myself, “Oh no¸ I’m the only Black guy in the class and I’m ridiculously late on the first day.” The first day of that class and I was already confirming negative stereotypes. Luckily, the issue of being late has not come up again, but another issue has. Fitting in with the rest of my department cohort has been a bit of a challenge to say the least. People have obviously cliqued together and while this is going on I find myself with a much smaller support group. People would be invited to things and I would be right there waiting for an invite too, only to be disappointed. Older graduate students were reaching to other students, but it did not seem as if anyone was trying to reach out to me. Experiencing this has given me perspective on all of those things I was warned about coming out of college.
It is difficult being a Black male in academia. I find myself silencing myself in class sometimes because I feel afraid to come off as less intelligent or less articulate than my peers. With everything I accomplished at Morehouse, self-doubt was creeping in and I was becoming much more sensitive to what was happening around. I was turning into the individuals I read about in all of those articles I read in college. Stereotype threat, socialization, and self-fulfilling prophecies: all of those things were happening to me and I had to figure out a way to deal with them. Eventually I just had to pull myself together and give myself a pep talk to remind myself that I did belong and I was just as intelligent as any of my peers. It also helped that I was not completely alone. Even though I felt as though not many people were reaching out to me, I did make the effort to reach out to others. Whether it is the other graduate students in my lab or my research mentor, it does help to make the effort to build your own support group instead of just waiting for it to happen.
I guess the advice I would give to others going to through similar situations is to keep trying and keep pushing through. Even if your friends aren’t in the same graduate school with you, keep in contact with them because they would still understand what you are going through. Join a Black Student association; regardless of the program or department there are others who are in the same situation and it helps to have a place to talk about these kinds of issues. Also, try to make friends with people in other departments. You don’t want every friend you have to be someone in the department; if that was the case, all you would talk about most of the time is class, research, and complaints about graduate school. Meeting people outside of graduate school helps, as hard as this may be to accomplish. Finally, try to make friends who aren’t Black. You will be surprised at how much you learn from a diverse group of friends. I have two roommates who I am friends with: one is an immigrant from Haiti and the other went to college in England. Living with them has definitely been a learning experience for me and it makes dealing graduate school a little easier. Whatever method you choose, it is good to have friends to support through this long and arduous process.
Graduate school can be a lonely experience, especially if there is not much of a support group. This is especially true for Black males. The field of psychology is still a field dominated by Whites and it is still difficult for members of minority groups to make themselves heard in the discipline. Black women are also outnumbering us in psychology as well. One of my best friends went to a conference for the Society of Research in Child Development earlier this year. He noted that out of the Black researchers that were present at the conference, he saw no Black males. Psychology is unique in that it is a scientific that is predominantly female. So not only are we the racial and ethnic minority, we are also the gender minority. In 2008, only 5.8% of Ph.Ds in psychology were awarded to Blacks. Out of Black Ph.D. recipient from all fields, 64% of those recipients were women. In addition to that, many of us also come from backgrounds where we may have been the first person to graduate from high school or college, let alone getting accepted into a Ph.D. program. This leaves us with family who are unable to truly understand what we are going through or even what we do in graduate school. Of course it is not their fault, but it still is hard to deal with that fact. You instantly become someone that your family looks to and you become a role model for younger members of your family. This is also a burden too because if you are the first, who in your family are you supposed to emulate? The best way to try to deal with this issue is to not worry so much about expectations from your family or being the exemplar. You will notice that they will most likely be proud of you and they just want you do well and be happy.
To sum this up, you do not have to be alone in this journey that is graduate school. It may be a daunting task to go through graduate school with all of the extra burdens of being a minority and feeling isolated, but you are not the only person who feels that way and you are not the only person who has been through that. Reach out to others, keep in contact with old friends, and talk to people about it. You will be surprised to learn who is having the same anxieties and pressures as you are. Finally, realize that if you make it through graduate school, you are opening the door for another person behind you. Don’t just leave with the Ph.D. and go on about your business, make sure that the person after you has it easier than you did. While the number of Black men who have a Ph.D. is increasing, there still are not that many of us. When you begin feel as though you are alone, remember that there was someone in your same position who made it. It can be done you just need to have a group of people who believe in you and you have to believe in yourself.