Black Voices in STEM Sparks Conversation, Elicits Change
By Bradi Zapata
Four students boldly yet vulnerably stared into an audience of over 100 Cal State San Marcos faculty, staff and students in the USU Ballroom for what would be the first of many tough conversations in the hopes of “getting uncomfortable to get comfortable.”
Black Voices in STEM, a student-led panel held in September, was a platform for these students to safely address where CSUSM and the College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (CSTEM) had either succeeded or fallen short of caring for their Black students. After facing jarring experiences and hearing stories of hardship from peers, Yetunde Adebayo, a CSTEM student and Black Voices in STEM host and panelist, approached Mallory Rice, assistant professor of biological sciences, with a call for change. Adebayo and Rice gained support from the dean of CSTEM, the director of the Center for Training, Research, and Educational Excellence, the Black Student Center, and the Office of Inclusive Excellence, with sponsorship provided by Viasat.
Adebayo’s peers and fellow CSTEM students, Siaje Gideon, Jamison Stalter and Alexis Vaughn, bravely joined her on stage to share their individual encounters as a Black student. Before the panelists shared their answers to many challenging questions, moderators Rice and Ariel Stevenson, interim deputy chief diversity officer, shed light on some concerning national statistics.
According to Pew Research Center’s 2021 report, “Across the United States, Black employees in the STEM workforce earn an average of $69,200, which is less than the national average of $77,400, and Black women earn the least at $57,000.”
Data from California State University’s (CSU) Graduation & Success Dashboards show that across the CSU campuses, only 16% of Black first-time freshman who entered as a STEM major from 2000-2015 earned a STEM degree within six years, compared to 44% of White students.
The CSUSM 2021 Campus Climate Report (CSUSM login credentials are required to view this resource) showed that only 64% of Black students who filled out the survey felt like they belonged to the CSUSM campus, with nearly 20% of students who filled out the survey sharing they felt there was a lot of racial tension on campus. Within STEM, nearly 70% of Black students who filled out the climate survey do not feel comfortable contributing to classroom discussions.
“These statistics demonstrate that there is a systemic exclusion for individuals based on their identities, with race and ethnicity being the number one predictor of who we see and who we do not see in STEM disciplines,” Rice said. “Individuals can face barriers across sectors of their identities, such as first-generation status, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexual identity, and many more, and all of these interact to inform an individual’s experiences in the world and how they are perceived by others.”
People with marginalized identities face multiple systems of oppression, including sexism and racism, which negatively influence their earning potential in the United States. While statistics can be shocking across all minority groups, Black Voices in STEM focused on those of Black individuals. Below, is a recount of just a few experiences shared by Adebayo, Gideon, Stalter and Vaughn.
Have you ever felt discouraged about being in a science major?
Adebayo: Personally, I have been discouraged a million times. I’ve experienced microaggressions after sharing that I wanted to go into the health care field, which is very competitive. People have told me that I wouldn’t be a perfect fit or that I wouldn’t be good enough. It really gets to me when people don’t believe in me from the very beginning.
What does it look like when a professor supports and cares about their Black students?
Gideon: I feel supported when teachers prioritize that I’m a human first and a student second and when my personal needs come before my academic ones. I feel cared about when teachers are welcoming, supportive and especially when they spell and pronounce my name correctly – that’s a little detail that I look for when I meet a new professor.
Stalter: When I know that you, as a professor, as a teacher, as an educator, are an ally – for all students, not just Black students but all students – that makes the difference.
What are ways you haven’t felt supported or safe at CSUSM or in CSTEM?
Vaughn: I had an experience in where a White student asked a question, then the professor was very generous and understanding in their tone and response. However, when I, a Black student, asked a question, the response I received was passive aggressive, rude and dismissive.
Have you had any negative experiences with another student and if so, how would you expect your professor to respond?
Gideon: I have had negative experiences, including racist microaggressions on this campus. Once in a class, we were going over geography and a girl next to me said “I’m surprised you didn’t get an A because you’re from Africa.” All I could do was drop my mouth. This was someone my own age making this kind of remark. Just because I’m Black does not mean I’m from Africa. If my peers are racist, then I’m going to be quiet in class. It’s important for instructors to shut that kind of behavior down and not tolerate that kind of dialogue.
Stalter: If a situation like this were to erupt in the classroom, I would expect the teacher to shut it down immediately and blatantly say, “This is unacceptable behavior.” Teachers need to put their foot down and make it clear as to what is and what is not tolerated.
What other barriers have you faced on your journey so far?
Adebayo: I’ve experienced a lack of diversity within faculty, and especially within CSTEM, in addition to feeling unwelcome in my own classroom because I’m the only Black student. It makes me feel like I must perform and work harder than everyone else in order to prove myself. That’s something I didn’t expect coming into higher education. It would be nice to have somebody that looks like me who I could look up to.
Vaughn: I’ve been looked at as the dumb Black girl, especially if I’m confused during a lecture. Yes, I’m a Black person, but I am more than that.
What suggestion do you have for the CSUSM community to make your experience more supportive and inclusive?
Vaughn: Having conversations like this is a great starting point because the community is willing to learn and help students of color then be a guide throughout the student’s time at CSUSM.
Adebayo: I think we would benefit from more voices similar to mine, who can make events like this possible, because having the drive and determination to do something paired with the perseverance to succeed will only take you so far. But when people within the community are willing to step up and say something to make sure that all voices are known, that will take us to places we’ve never been before.
“Our faculty and staff are committed to helping all students succeed, but we sometimes fall short," said Jackie Trischman, dean of CSTEM. "This student-led event helped us to shine a spotlight on the national and local statistics for our Black students. It also helped us see that some of our own practices can set up unintended barriers to their sense of belonging, learning and, ultimately, student success.
“At our campus, we want our students to be at their best selves; to be their whole selves and that’s not where we are. Frankly that’s just not acceptable. I know we’re going to get there because our community in attendance is committed to learning, understanding and growing.”
These small but impactful changes shape the narrative and instill hope for a larger shift in behaviors and mindsets institutionally and nationally.
“I encourage faculty always to remember that you’re still a facilitator and a guide in the classroom. We're trying to get away from those prior days when people invited students of color to classes and said, ‘Look to your left, look to your right; only one of you will graduate,’ ” Stevenson said. “No, no, no, not at Cal State San Marcos! We say, ‘Look to your left, look to your right; let's be a community and do this together.’ Let's be guides and facilitators for one another.”
While Black Voices in STEM focused on sharing the experiences of Black students, there are other marginalized groups not far behind where CSTEM students are in terms of their feelings and sense of belonging on campus. In light of this, CSTEM aims to continue hosting student panels where students can share their experiences in hopes of eliciting change.
“Our students were brave enough to voice their experiences; I am grateful to the CSTEM faculty who validated those experiences by being present and listening to those students with care,” Stevenson said.
“To me, the questions from faculty indicated they wanted to ensure CSUSM is a student-ready institution where centering the student’s experience is heavily intertwined with the student’s overall success. The Office of Inclusive Excellence is always happy to partner with CSTEM faculty who have a willingness to engage in making our campus and their classrooms more welcoming to all students.”
To watch the full video recording of Black Voices in STEM, click here. To see photos of the event, click here. To see a list of education and support resources for Black students, faculty, and staff click here.
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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