“Nobody looks like me.” It’s a phrase I hear very often surrounded by minorities in engineering. I hear it from people in all positions and walks of life as well. I have heard it form professors, graduate and undergraduate students, and even younger students. For so long I just let it run off my back because I never thought that. I never felt like I needed somebody to look like me to fit in; I was that kid that always said, “I’m going to be the first black female who ___.” But, once I finally started listening to others I realized why it was so important to others to see someone who looks like them and not race to be the first (ethnicity) (gender) to be ____.
I was fortunate to grow up in a household that taught you worked for rewards. Because of this, I always just thought that as long as I worked hard enough I would get what I wanted in life. I can’t say I was wrong; I’m a graduate student working towards a PhD in a field that amazes and surprises me every day. But as far as mentors go, I did not have any who truly looked like me and were in positions I craved at any point in my life. How are we supposed to convince the world that we’re just as good if there’s nobody proving it? How are we supposed to instill confidence in those who are proving it if they’re all alone?
At the undergraduate level, enrollment of African American students has grown by 23% since the 1960s, but is still only 37%. At the graduate level, the growth is a measly 5% to 15%. The numbers make it easy to see what other people are talking about. (Excuse my selfish reporting metric; see links at the end for all data). Nobody looks like me.
So what do we do about this? “Well we’ll just admit more minorities!” says the big man in the fancy office. But is it going to help to admit more minorities if they don’t have the support system and educational foundation to succeed? Nope. So really, this needs to be a trickle down effect. You hire more minorities, those minorities form support systems for the students, the students gain more confidence and encourage their younger friends to apply, pass that on to their children and other mentor/mentee relationships, etc. But is that fair? Is it fair to just hire someone because they’re a minority? Nah.
So again, what do we do about this? As minorities, we need to step up and make sure we’re working hard to earn everything we want in life. We need to make sure we go out in the community and talk to younger persons, and older persons, so people know what we’re trying to do in this world. As part of the majority, we need to listen to the minorities. We need to take what they say to heart, because at the end of the day, you don’t know the other side first hand. You might understand the other side, but you cannot know it first hand.
I used “we” for both categories because there exists a situation for which you can be put in the group you identify less strongly with. The end goal/take-home message is this: Make sure wherever you go, you dismiss the fear associated with “nobody looks like me.”