As a chemical engineer and polymer scientist, I was blessed to have an amazing graduate advisor who is also a black woman and has been extremely successful in her career. However, I was always afraid I would mess up or disappoint everyone who believed in me. I wish I knew that it was okay to not have all the answers and to be vulnerable with trusted mentors. Chances are they have had similar experiences and can offer great advice on how to move forward.
I also wish I knew that it is okay to say “no” or “not right now” to extra responsibility. As black women in the academy, we are often called upon to do more because we represent gender and racial minority groups. Looking back, saying no to unnecessary responsibility would have allowed me to put more energy into causes I am passionate about, and would have prevented some of the “burn outs” I experienced.
We have made so much progress and are knocking down racial, gender, and class barriers left and right! I’m so proud of and encouraged by all the brilliant black women I encounter in communities like Black Girls Guide to Grad School. I have hope that if we continue to connect with and support one another, there’s nothing we can’t do!
My Mantra: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” – Anaïs Nin
Symone Alexander, PhD Candidate
NSF Graduate Research Fellow
In honor of Black History Month, Black Girls Guide To Grad School will be featuring amazing women in graduate school who continue to create history by just their very presence. They will be featured in a “What I wish I knew” Series. As a prelude to the amazing story and thoughts that are to come, I thought I would share mine:
As only the second black woman to enter my PhD program, I already felt the pressure to succeed and I also learned that mistakes were not a luxury I could have. I wish I knew that I could ask for help earlier and that others were willing to help me without judgement. I wish I knew how to speak up with the realization that asking a question does not mean you are incompetent. Asking questions are necessary and it is important to be assertive and to make sure that you understand every aspect. Your education and your growth is the most important.
I wish I knew that being alone did not always mean that you had to be lonely. There are so many of us, women of color, who are the only ones or only a few. If we truly came together and supported each other, do you know how great our community could be? What an impact that would be.
My mantra: “All great achievements require time” – Maya Angelou
Sometimes for reasons unknown to us, we lose our motivation to continue the clock work grind that we have been doing day in and day out. When was the moment I realized I did not want to go into the lab or write another paper? I asked myself this question so many times, and there is going to be a time (if you have not already done so) that you ask yourself the same thing. All this means, is that you are human and some days are going to be harder to find the meaning of it all; more than the other days. Most times, we choose our research topics and questions based on key moments that take place in our lives or we form them based on our passion or a derivative of our passions. This does not mean that in some instances we would not rather learn or discover something else, even if just for a brief moment. When you eat, breathe and sleep the same topic, an underlying feeling of frustration develops, especially when it is not always smooth sailing. So how do we step back and regroup in order to prevent our frustration from evolving to disdain?
The first thing to ask yourself is why did you sign up for this program? At some point, there was a belief that the world can be changed by a novel idea or expanded knowledge. Something someone missed before that you have now uncovered. If that reason is not groundbreaking enough for you then think about the opportunity you have. You are in the minority. More clearly, you are in the very small percentage of folks who have taken the step to get an advanced degree.
Let’s be clear, yes you are doing this for yourself, but you are also doing this for the young black girl who has been observing your journey. You may not know who she is and she may be the most unlikely person you had in mind. But because of your courage, she is now hoping to become you when she grows up.
Never forget about your tribe your tribe will keep you going so let them. When you misstep, they are there to encourage and let you know that you got this. When you succeed in even the small things, they will be there to say they told you that you were magic! Just by their presence, you are going to realize, these people have been on the journey with you and you owe it to them to see it through.
Lastly, it may sound cliché and many of us are afraid to admit it. But God can do anything, and he will do it! I have a praying family and I am not ashamed to say that they prayed for me every single day. In the same breath the question of why am I feeling this way is asked, self-reflect and ask for the guidance and motivation that is needed. Ask for the extra push. It will be provided.