Being the Only _____ in your Program
Updated: Apr 10, 2019
Question: How does it feel being the only _____ in your program?
Answer: Well I didn't notice until you just pointed it out. Now, that I see it, I can't un-see it, and it feels kind of lonely.
February 27, 2019 by Destenie Nock
If you're the only underrepresented minority, woman, american, person from ________ country, or ______ in your program, it can be tough at times. It also doesn't necessarily get easier as you progress through your career, as highlighted by these Black Mathematicians in a recent New York Times article.
Most of the time I would forget I was in the minority until someone else pointed it out. Two occasions stick out in my mind. Both occasions started with the following question: "How does it feel to be the only African American in your program?"
The first time this was asked to me I was in my masters program in Northern Ireland. I was the only American in my program, and the only African American in the group of Americans I sometimes hung out with. I thought I was prepared to deal with loneliness because I was planning to travel to a new country and meet a variety of people. That question, which was asked by one of my friends, led me to feel a whole new type of loneliness. The way I coped with this was hitting the gym, traveling, increased Skype calls with my boyfriend (now fiance), and finally convincing my family and friends to come and visit me.
Most of the time I would forget I was in the minority until someone else pointed it out.
The second time this question was posed to me while I was in the PhD program at UMass. At this stage of my career I was able to proudly point out that there was another African American in the program. This resulted in the person asking "Ok, well what is it like to be the only black female in the program?"
Prior to the question I was in this "ignorance is bliss, happy to be back in the USA, I'm getting along with everyone in my program, and things are going great" type of state. That question was like a sledge hammer making direct contact with the glass veil I held over my ignorance is bliss state. Once the glass was shattered I was no longer just concerned with keeping my head down, and finishing the program as quickly as possible. It made me re-evaluate the advice people had given me along the way and examine whether I was a part of the solution or just another person allowing the lack of diversity in advanced STEM degrees to persist. This hyper-awareness also made me more sensitive to microaggressions which I realized I was putting up with a lot.
For those of you wondering what microaggressions are, I define them as the everyday verbal and nonverbal slights, snubs, or insults (intentional or unintentional), which communicate hostile, or negative messages to a person based solely upon membership in a marginalized group. It is when someone says "Well, it's easy for you to get scholarships because you are a woman in STEM," or "Oh it will be easier for you to find a job because people hire minorities more right now." Each of these down play how hard you have worked to get to where you are today, and the skills you have to be qualified to receive the job or scholarship regardless of the color of your skin, gender identity, or ethnic background. Microagressions can also come in the form of being passed over for a raise or award because someone else is “more qualified“ when you know that you have been performing equally if not better. Do not let people belittle you or your skills in any way! The PhD and life in general is hard enough and that is negative energy you do not need to be around.
I actively avoid people that try to make my accomplishments seem less than what they are. No one benefits from you downplaying your accomplishments. If you need some motivation I really like the "How to Let Your Light Shine Bright" motivational video by Lisa Nichols. In the video she says "other people's perception of you ain't none of your business." If people are being very negative towards you, then you have got to let them go!
Everything you have been through, struggled with, and overcame has been a set up for your next big success. The people you are around should be your best supporters. When you are looking for people to add to your support group, go wider than those that look like you or are from the same background. Often those who have been in a situation where they were the only _____ in their program will understand your situation better. One thing that I really love is bike riding, not the hardcore intense stuff, but a leisurely stroll on the bike path is nice. So many people I hang out with also like to hit the bike path in the summer.
Everything you have been through, struggled with, and overcame has been a set up for your next big success.
Most importantly you should keep in contact with your friends from previous stages of your life (i.e. college and high school) and your family. These people can be another source of information for dealing with these feelings, and hopefully can help you come up with strategies for overcoming that isolation. I also have a lot of mentors who were in similar situations but are farther in their career. Just because you are the only ______ in your program doesn’t mean your social circle should reflect this.
I hope this is helpful for those that are the only _______ in their program, and for those that wanted to know a little bit of what it is like to be the only ________. Thanks for reading! If you like this blog post please consider subscribing below so that you never miss an update.
Note about the author: Destenie Nock is a PhD Candidate in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has been in the PhD program for the last 4 years and she is looking forward to graduating in May and getting to ride her bike in the summer without the stress of having to write her PhD dissertation chasing her. One of her biggest supporters on this PhD journey has been her fiance. She would like to thank him for reading every essay that has gone into her dissertation! In her free time she loves to blog, paint, and play tennis. She holds two BS degrees from North Carolina A&T State University.