I realized at a young age that I liked learning. I was curious and I wanted to know how stuff worked. This was normal to me. Most toys that didn’t require assembly or have moving parts were not of interest. I was and still am fascinated with gadgets, gears and all things mechanical.
I am also interested in science, and formally educated as a Ph.D physicist. Additionally, I am in all of the buckets or came from all of the buckets that define nearly all of the disparities in America. I will acknowledge that I am not the norm. Not being the norm was an issue with those who do share a common demographic with me, but can’t identify with my uniqueness. It was also an issue with those that didn’t expect me to or want me to excel.
As time progressed, I became aware of the fact that knowing it all and being called a know-it-all were not quite the same. Knowing it all got you a 100 on a test. Being a know-it-all was what you were called when you said “I got a 100 on the test!” As a child, it was confusing because conflicted signals were given; the point of going to school was to learn and be measured by how much you learned. When exhibiting that I intended to keep my end of that deal, there were some that were encouraging, some that were condescendingly surprised, and some that were obstructive. Those attitudes from others tended to not change much as my transition from public school to college to professional occurred.
All of this background hopefully has lead smoothly into the theme of this essay: the STEM race/gender gap and the viewpoint I have on the matter. Well, being a gifted child growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was fortunate enough to have some exceptional teachers (shoutout to Ms. DeBrew 4th grade) at the right time; when the school systems in Virginia were just adopting the then almost 20 year old Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. This was when academic playing fields were probably most level.
What wasn’t and still isn’t balanced in some instances is the peer group and family infrastructure. Friends and family, do understand that I am intelligent and will proudly brag about my accomplishments, but don’t always understand how difficult it is being the “Smart One” (my sisters are smart too but I was the better student). Coming from a family that was the opposite of affluent puts additional pressure on the Smart One financially. It is the expectation that there is a direct correlation between intelligence and earnings (BTW I am in favor of that premise). Completing college is a great achievement for anyone, and graduate school is what happens after that for most physics majors. My family, particularly my late father, couldn’t reconcile in his mind why I wasn’t working, instead of going to school longer than I needed to. The lifelong friends that are true stay in place and realize that I am a friend to them as well, regardless of academic credentials; theirs or mine. The acquaintances and those who were close friends during the early years, now find me unapproachable. Not because I am, but because of who I have become, based on some constructed image of me in their minds.
Another obstacle is plotting a logical course to fulfill personal and professional goals while maintaining a relationship or marriage. STEM fields require interaction with men, otherwise there wouldn’t be a gender disparity. Not all men (my husband included), are completely comfortable with the fact that quite often I am the only woman in the workspace that isn’t an administrative assistant, or that I have meetings or work-related lunches with men. These insecurities cause stress and have probably ended relationships for others.
Looking at the dilemma outside of myself in the present day, I see a world where the social climate says loud and clear to today’s underrepresented youth that they are inferior, they are potential terrorists or threats in general because of race and/or religion, they are social misfits and burdens, regardless of their level of intelligence. While the current and sudden push for inclusion in STEM is happening, as a young black girl I would wonder what the catch was. Why now is the educational system interested in doing more, especially for me? Is this going to be one of those situations comparable to Lucy pulling the football away when Charlie Brown tries to kick it? Is someone like me going to be able to talk to them about the challenges they will face for example, through no fault of their own, a racially identifiable first name may get their application package for a job or seat in a graduate program tossed out? Will someone tell them that they will be scrutinized, ostracized, unequally compensated and constantly challenged to perform at higher standards than their counterparts? Will they realize sooner than later that being smart and working hard isn’t enough? Hopefully so, and for the record I believe in and practice encouraging, nurturing and mentoring, because I had that when I needed it, otherwise I would have no real-life perspective on this matter. I pride myself on being a realist and I know what it feels like to have the spirit broken when excited or passionate about academics, so I just hope that these excited young African-American girls aren’t getting bamboozled because America is momentarily shamed into reaching out. This is just version 2.0 of Affirmative Action but without legislators, so it will be simpler to engage and disengage as wanted or needed.
Dr. Trina Coleman is an educator, scientist, entrepreneur, and public speaker. Twitter: @drtlc @AcademicDrtlc