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Being in the Room

Being in the Room

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By Chrystelle Vilfranc

Most #WOCinSTEM will admit that they have had at least one experience where they felt out of place in a #STEM space. During my first year of graduate school, I remember wanting to be invisible in my #STEM space. The difficulty of my coursework and my struggles in lab caused me to question my calling. Most days, I would isolate myself and pray that no one engaged me in any form. I didn’t want them to notice the doubt I was certain could be seen in my eyes.

Thankfully, at the end of the school year, I was introduced to my institution’s only black female PhD in the biomedical sciences. After a long one-on-one lunch which included many tears and laying out of all of my self doubt, she reaffirmed that I deserved to be there. She shared her #STEM journey with me. Next, she challenged me:

“You need to do more than just be here. You can’t afford to just be in a room. People need to know you exist. Speak up. Engage. Be in the room and let the room know you’re there!”

Since then, this idea of being rather than simply existing has challenged me to engage others in my #STEM space. I would need to engage others to truly get further, whether it meant tutoring, networking with others concerning lab issues, or identifying what I call “self-assigned mentors.” To BE, I would need to have a more positive environment, both physically and mentally. It has since been my mission to do a lot of networking and to keep myself in positive spaces.

Of course, when opportunity arose for me to meet other PhDs of color I seized it. It was a privilege to attend Promise AGEP’s #ThinkBigDiversity conference in Baltimore this past August. Attendees received an email with the conference agenda from Dr. Renetta Tull, the mastermind behind the conference. The greatest moment for me was the doctoral roll call. I had previously read about this portion of the program in the agenda. Dr. Tull’s email had stated the purpose of the doctoral roll call was to symbolize, “…We need them to finish their doctorates.” Although I KNEW it was coming, I found myself growing emotional as I attempted to capture this moment by photo and video.

There was something very special about all of these PhD holders encircling us, the future PhDs. I am certain it was a high moment of inspiration for many like myself. As frigid as the temperature was in that room, my heart was warmed as I looked into the faces of the men and women of color who held PhDs surrounding us. The truth is that we needed to see them in order for us to complete our doctorates. Seeing is indeed believing.

Representation actually matters—I know this firsthand. I could not recall a time prior to this one where I had the privilege of being in a room with so many people of color with doctoral degrees, especially STEM-related PhDs.

Being a first-generation American in a household with West-Indian parents, the only doctors my siblings and I encountered were physicians. For a while, my interest in understanding cancer was met with a push towards medical school. However, meeting an African American biology professor while in college encouraged me to research doctoral degrees in the biomedical sciences. Meeting and engaging with her throughout the semester turned on a lightbulb for me: I could get a PhD. After all, she was living proof that I could do it, too.

I am always looking for opportunities to seek forms of representation to encourage me along my #STEM journey. This past summer, I took to the Internet and identified virtual mentors. Through the #VanguardSTEM community, I have met a number of #WOCinSTEM I can call role models and mentors. I recruited even more mentors from the #ThinkBigDiversity conference; this virtual tribe of individuals, especially those who are #WOCinSTEM, provide sound and genuine personal and scientific advice.

Within my tribe, I have identified PhDs who are willing to read my grant proposal and stand as a resource as I am approaching judgement day (aka the qualifying exam). Having these resources and seeing these women of color get through their PhD journeys has definitely taken mine to great heights. This, in a sense, is what I believe it means to be proactive while in the room that is your individual #STEM journey.

The entire #ThinkBigDiversity Conference encouraged us to be proactive about our paths in #STEM. There is so much more to getting a college/graduate school admission, an internship, a faculty position and even funding (yes, even funding).

What are you doing within the realm that you were called to be in at this time? Are you existing in the room? Do people know that you are present? With your color aside, could you be accounted for in the room or are you just the notch in the diversity checkbox? Speak. Contribute. Be! Don’t just exist in your #STEM space! BE proactive. Be in the room and let the room know that you are here.


Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler

All rights reserved. The content above or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of #VanguardSTEM except for the use of brief quotations, with attribution, and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to #VanguardSTEM, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at hello@vanguardstem.com

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