Excellence and honors in underserved college students?

April 4, 2024 at 9:25 AM
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Excellence and honors in underserved college students

By Zaila Brinson UA’27 and James Stellar

I first met Zaila in a 1-credit freshman (UNI-100) class last semester where my job was to help new students navigate this big University. We began talking both in and out of class about her then major of Biology. In the process of getting to know her, I discovered that she really enjoys writing. Now, interestingly enough, the peer mentor (a senior) for this course was also a biology major as a freshman and decided to switch to fine arts. There is a possibility that this peer mentor’s story also inspired Zaila as she switched to English at the end of the fall semester.  

With this background, my first “question” is this: Can you take us through your thinking process last semester as to what impelled you to make this change.

Ever since I can remember, I have loved to write. When I was kid, I would take copy paper out of the printer, write stories on the pages, and then staple them together. That was my way of creating books. This love for creating new worlds with words is probably why my favorite courses throughout my entire academic career have always been related to English. So, it does seem kind of strange that I came into this university as a STEM major, but I did this mainly because my parents always encouraged my brothers and I to pursue medicine. A STEM career was somewhat expected of us growing up. That made biology seem like the logical choice when filling out my application to UAlbany.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually do like biology and enjoyed the molecular and cell biology class I took during my first semester here. However, throughout that semester, I had this nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. It felt almost like I was out of place, just drifting along a river instead of swimming towards an actual goal. Then, we were given an assignment in our UNI-100 class to discuss on video what we thought our major would be next year and why, among other things. I was finally given a chance to express my true desired course of study out loud. It felt like a weight had been taken off my chest when I said I wanted to major in English. The subject has always given me a sense of fulfillment, so studying it is a decision that makes perfect sense to me.

Now that you have switched, can you tell us a little bit about your experience as an English major and your experience with a fantastic program at UAlbany called The New York State Writers Institute?

I find myself going through a tremendous amount of growth this semester in terms of my writing and reading skills. My classes are not only helping me in my interpretation of literary works, but also I am improving my approach to crafting my own poems and stories. Also, the faculty in the English department were very welcoming and supportive of me; they answered all the questions I had about the major and have helped me navigate the many things it has to offer. A feature of this university that has been very advantageous to me is The New York State Writers Institute. The institute promotes written art by bringing in authors from various places to engage in panel discussions and residencies. It is so nice to be able to walk only a few minutes from my dorm and listen to different authors talk about their work and experiences. This has been so helpful for me in the way I think about how I write and my future in terms of publishing physical copies of my work. I am also in a program called The Young Writers Project and I have been able to attend talks about submitting your work to literary magazines and other things that relate to the industry.

Given Zaila’s ethnic background and her membership in the Honors college, this is a good moment to explore the interaction between diversity/inclusiveness and excellence. Her switch from STEM to English may be an example of that. But let’s ask her.

Seeing representation in spaces not typically occupied by minorities has always been important for marginalized people. This is especially the case for me, an African American girl who was always either the only or one of the very few black students in a class and grew up with many negative stereotypes being perpetuated about her people. When those who are marginalized are able to see others who look like them and/or come from similar backgrounds as them in positions once thought of as “unobtainable”, this allows them to set goals they may have pushed aside for fear of failure and retaliation. Representation lets us dream and aspire to greatness. In terms of excellence, having a range of people from different races and ethnicities in honors programs or other esteemed organizations, allows for both their peers, students younger than them, and even possibly students older than them to observe the hard work it takes to achieve their academic goals. Those students also know, by looking at the students of high academic achievement, that they too can become “excellent”, no matter where they may come from, what they may look like, what they may sound like, etc. In terms of my switch from STEM to English, I think that seeing people willing to follow their passions is a good thing for other students and just people in general. There is a long standing stereotype that African American students are not good at reading any maybe even worse at writing. I think that by seeing students of color excel in subjects like these, inspiration is given to those who may have previously doubted themselves and their journey to achieve their goals.

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