A #VanguardSTEM Conference Highlight: The PROMISE Summer Success Institute 2016
by Jedidah Isler, Ph.D.
We’ve been talking all things conference attendance this month and we decided that it would be a good idea to feature one conference in particular, that the #VanguardSTEM team was a participant and sponsor of, this past month. We were delighted to partner with Dr. Renetta Tull (our past #WCWinSTEM) as she oversaw the PROMISE Summer Success Institute whose theme this year was “Think Big Diversity.” This annual event is equal parts welcome and we-got-you; a celebration of incoming #STEM graduate students and postdocs and a gathering of those who believe in community within the STEM enterprise. I hadn’t heard of it until Dr. Tull invited my team and I to attend, but I am so glad we took her up on that offer.
The conference, which was called #ThinkBigDiversity for short, was nothing less than inspirational, encouraging, welcoming and uplifting. In fact, that was the overarching comment about the whole conference. Students and colleagues alike left feeling supported and encouraged in a way that they hadn’t been in quite some time.
We chose to highlight this gathering, this coalescing of like-minded individuals, because it underscores the value of a confer-ence; a bringing together of people that doesn’t necessarily need to be connected to a formal society.
I think that’s an important point worth making. Now to be fair, many of the conference participants were return attendees, so the air of familiarity was rich there, but it is possible to create an annual gathering that is an event unto itself. Here are the speakers, moderators, media, organizers and mentors of #ThinkBigDiversity (image courtesy Renetta Tull).
I wanted to use this conference as a jumping off point for four reasons I think attending conferences is important, and why you should go. Not just to your research-focused professional society gatherings (even with their committees for women and “minorities”), but that you should make special effort to attend identity-focused STEM conferences. The anxiety of loneliness that many women of color (and people of color more broadly) feel when pursuing our craft in often very white spaces can be mitigated by conferences at which we are not “the only” of one of few. You are literally surrounded by others who may share some of your story. Whether it’s in scientific interest, socioeconomic standing, first (or n-th) generation post-undergraduate experience, encounters with racism/prejudice/other -isms, there is a comfort in being in these spaces. I acknowledge that we still have a long way to go with truly intersectional spaces that include those with disabilities and other overlapping identities.
#ThinkBigDiversity purposely created opportunities for connection. I won’t get into all the details of that, because we’ve got some contributed content for the end of the week that will address it, but suffice it to say, when people see, value and identify with your experience, they can provide opportunities for nurturing and encouraging you. This is a key aspect of maintaining motivation as one pursues their academic dreams. At every turn, those who have been through the graduate school gauntlet made themselves available to those who were making their way through now. Every person was understood –and expected– to be a mentor to the next person. If you learned something along the way, you had something to share. Your experience and your advice was valuable. Perhaps most importantly, you didn’t have to prove or justify that your experience may be difficult or that there were additional burdens you had to carry.
#ThinkBigDiversity addressed life as it is, even while trying to create the academic experience as it should be. In one of the most gripping and telling moments of the conference, Dr. Tull told us why the conference had such an overtly family-friendly vibe. Students, postdocs, presenters, all who were invited were also encouraged to bring their family along. I noticed this policy very early on, but didn’t know what, if anything at all, was the cause for it. At the opening welcome, the sobering genesis of this policy was discussed. First referenced as the “Jessica Effect” which, according to the Promise AGEP website, is a University of Maryland “strategic institutional planning decision to definitively invite and actively include the family members and friends of graduate students, postdocs and faculty in informative and celebratory events and programs.” Named for former graduate student, the late Jessica Soto Pérez, a Latina who was tragically killed by her husband. The Jessica Effect seeks to include family and friends in the life of an academic to help demystify the process and make it more inclusive. While there is never any excuse for violence of any kind toward another, the inclusive initiatives that her life has helped create will be just as much of her legacy as her love of chemical engineering. It’s the first time I had ever heard domestic violence discussed at a conference and I hope it won’t be the last.
#ThinkBigDiversity relentlessly points to and plans for a future full of students of color in STEM. This point is not to be overlooked. The general consensus from the conference organizers was not if you would succeed, but when. At the core of all that was happening was the thought, “You have everything you need to succeed, and that you don’t have, we’ll help you get.” It was refreshing and amazing to behold. From “Swagger Seminars” courtesy of Dr. Daniel Jean to affirmations built on Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” from Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead. We were going to get through this together, and if you had any doubt, look at the PhD-holders in the room. They were no different than you, and you would one day be them, if you just kept going. I already have a PhD, but I was sure that day that I could get another!
#ThinkBigDiversity builds supportive communities of experience. Part of the reason one goes to a conference is to expand their professional network. This is not just important for what can seem to be self-aggrandizing reasons. One of the most important reasons for attending such conferences, especially as a new-comer, is to create communities of support for yourself. You need people to help you navigate the uncharted waters of the graduate educational experience. This community can give you firsthand advice on what (not) to do in pursuit of your academic vision. Advice as practical as how to study or how to choose a research advisor all the way up to how to navigate academia as a woman of color. You need that community to succeed to your highest potential and one of the best (and most robust) places to build it is at an identity-focused STEM conference, like #ThinkBigDiversity.
#ThinkBigDiversity provides an important archetype for why identity-focused STEM conferences are important. Yet, the benefits of this kind of gathering extend beyond this particular conference. The road to your STEM dreams will be long, challenging and sometimes completely overwhelming, but if you build in conferences like these before the going gets rough, you’ll have a support system and “BOD” to rely on in the toughest moments. These four things that #ThinkBigDiversity did exceptionally well can also be found at many identity-focused STEM conferences across the country all year. Check our #VS Resource List for some suggestions if you’re not quite sure where to start.
We’ll be featuring even more content related to #ThinkBigDiversity for the rest of the week, so stay tuned for more!