A view on student diversity and STEM education from someone raised in Jamaica

March 3, 2020 at 4:28 PM
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A view on student diversity and STEM education from someone raised in Jamaica

by Symone Reid UA’15, 18’ and Jim Stellar

SR came to America when she was 12 years old, settling with her family in the New York area. She entered the University at Albany as a Biology and Biochemistry major where she met JS and he became a mentor, in part because of her premedical ambitions. Upon graduation she volunteered for a year as a teacher’s science and math aid at Albany High School, came back and got a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology from UAlbany, and we wrote a blog about it. Now she works in the neighboring city of Troy in their school system as a tutor to high school students. What prompted this blog was our re-connection around her recent applications to medical schools.

There are a few things I would like us to talk about. First, let’s go back to the blog. Why did you as a premed student decide to volunteer as a teacher’s aide in the Albany public high school?

Back in high school, I was taken on a school trip to watch the documentary Waiting for Superman, which discussed the disparities and decline in the education system and how it negatively affects students, particularly those of color who are raised in low income neighborhoods. Since then, I felt as though it was a system that I wanted to be a part of in order to change outcomes for students who are impacted by it. After graduating UA, I was working in the Emergency Department at Albany Medical Center, but also volunteering during the day time at AHS. I wanted to do this for two reasons: to be a positive role model for young women of color, and also to help students learn topics that are usually perceived as difficult or uninteresting.

It makes sense to me that you wanted to be a physical presence to these young people giving the lie to the notion that they cannot succeed because they are from a minority background. But I am curious about something you said at a recent coffee get together about how being raised in Jamaica, you did not know you were black until your family came to America.

Yes!! Absolutely, I never had to consciously think about my race when I was growing up. I had classmates who were Black, White, Indian, and Chinese, and I never thought about them as anything more than another friend, another Jamaican. I never thought about their race being superior or inferior to my own. In fact, race and ethnicity did not become a conscious thing for me until I came to the USA. And now it’s something that I think about every day. I’m not sure whether there is truly a divide to the extent that the media portrays it in this country, but I will say it does feel like a burden that I have to worry about now, compared to when I was a child.

Let’s follow that up by discussing empowering young people from minority backgrounds and maybe touch on the more psychological aspects, as in stereotype threat or the impact of microaggressions when one comes from a black American culture with a history of slavery.

This is another point that motivates me to be active in my community. For far too long, I wanted to be a physician, but did not know how to conceptualize it. My dream, for far too long, was just that – a dream, because I didn’t believe that I could actually make it come true. I believe what can make this worse is not having role models to look up to that you could see yourself in. It’s the same reason why I see a lot of young boys and girls aspiring to enter the entertainment business – there’s no shortage of athletes, singers, dancers, rappers, etc. that worked hard and became successful. But how many of us grew up knowing black lawyers, businessmen, doctors, nurses, or mechanics? Growing up, I had never met a single doctor, male or female, who was black. And it never hit me how that can affect a person on a more subconscious level. My hope is that I will continue to serve my community along with other professionals of color, and show the children of our communities that they can too have the reality that they deserve. The reality is that racism and microaggressions will persist, but we cannot allow another man’s perspective of us to control our futures. For example, I had a woman tell me that she could see me being successful as long as I would not leave my hair in an afro. Thankfully, I am at a point in my life where I embrace my hair, and love wearing it out. It creates a sense of community, empowerment, and belonging amongst other black young black girls and women.

Being black in America does something to you mentally, whether or not you realize it. I think my greatest blessing is having some sense of pride in who I was before it could be taken from me. The thing is, we all handle microaggressions differently, and it’s the way in which you are taught to handle it that can play a role in your future. It’s funny, a similar conversation came up recently as I was talking with a black female medical student at Albany Med. She told me that the students of color who tend to struggle the most are the ones that are severely affected by microaggressions and racism, as well and those that do not have an outlet to discuss these issues.

Your medical student story is a powerful follow-on to your own life experience. It shows the hidden burden that people feel. One of our ideas, discussed in this blog at other points, is how experiences (think experiential education) can be a good way to explore how to compliment intellectual knowledge in teaching about these topics. For example, over the past summer, we had a series of three blog posts on the social anxiety of crossing between ethnic groups and what might be some ideas for how it works experientially based on a basic understanding of frontal lobe vs amygdala brain function. 

So, what do we do about it?  What can higher education do?

I think this is such a great question. I wish the answer to this were simple. But there’s also so many pieces of the puzzle to address. There’s the issue of social anxiety between ethnic groups which can be addressed by facilitating conversations between different races and conversations within individual groups. There has to be more understanding, acceptance, and empathy from all of us if we want to move forward for the benefit of future generations. Many groups are facing challenges, but often outgroups attempt to diminish the struggles that ingroups speak up upon instead of listening and finding a way to help. We really don’t listen to each other enough.

There’s also the issue of bridging the gaps in education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many before me have been trying different methods, which have worked in some places, but are still lacking in others. I think we go with what seems to be working, such as connecting students from disadvantaged backgrounds with other successful people who have similar stories, in the hopes that these children can physically see that they too can have a better life. We have to expose our children to experiences that grow their mindsets and improve their way of life so that they can go on to make a difference for future generations to come.

We agree that the most powerful force in the world for addressing the issues discussed above is other people, particularly people who for whatever reason have earned the authentic trust of the person who they are hoping to influence. Those of us in STEM fields, love the idea that there should be heroes among us who are inspiration and can “bridge the gaps in education” for students, particularly for those from backgrounds that do not give them a natural advantage for success.

Why is the influence of role models or even mentors so powerful? Modern social neuroscience, behavioral economics, and other fields agree that individual humans were helped in their survival by groups. Our brains are too energy demanding, our children grow up too slowly, and our survival as a species is too precarious if we did not have groups to share the burden. As a species, we dominated the planet because we cooperated, learned from each other, and advanced. Those same traits can solve our current problems of raising up all people in education.

However, Joshua Greene argued in his 2014 book Moral Tribes, that all of our instincts from this group origin are fine when we are operating within our group, an in-group.  But when we see another group as an out-group, we need to rely on what we know is right intellectually and not use those instincts.  We need to put ourselves out there like SR did in the Albany Public Schools, so that we change and come regard the out-group as part of our in-group.  Then real education can occur, driven up by authentic inspiration from others, rather than driven down by things like microaggression.

Each of us has a unique and different role in this process, depending in part on what we bring to the situation.  This is SR’s story.  There are many others.

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