The words “diversity” and “inclusivity” are guaranteed to be found on every website at UW-Madison. But how “diverse” and “inclusive” is UW-Madison exactly? Are mentors and faculty advocating for underrepresented students? How do students find support and connect with others with interests in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields?
The current STEM climate nationally neglects to discuss marginalized identities in the classroom, leaving racial minorities, women, persons with disabilities, and queer and trans individuals questioning their abilities and feeling discouraged. However, the lack of diversity within STEM classrooms may reflect the broader issues that persist on the UW-Madison campus, and nationally.
According to the Spring 2018, enrollment report from the Office of Registrar, the undergraduate demographic is 2.9% African American, 6% Asian, 1.7% Southeast Asian, 0.9% Native American, 0.3% Native Hawaiian, 5.1% Hispanic American, 9.4% international and 73% white. (**there are no data on students with disabilities, gender/sexuality minorities in the enrollment report).
In the fall of 2017, UW-Madison’s Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement (DDEEA) released the findings from its campus-wide climate survey. The results further confirmed the need to talk about why historically underrepresented students continue to feel excluded at this predominately white institution and in STEM, an area plagued by implicit bias and blatant inequalities. A diversity statement is not enough.
Not surprisingly, the campus climate survey found that students’ experiences on campus differ by background and identities. While “81 percent of students overall feel welcome on campus”, this means that almost 20 percent of students feel less than welcome on campus. In a smaller classroom setting, such as a discussion with 10 to 20 students, the chances are two to four students feel unwelcomed. The chances of those students identifying as underrepresented? High.
In comparison, only “69 percent of LGBQ students, 67 percent of students with a disability, 65 percent of students of color, and 50 percent of transgender/non-binary students” reported feeling welcome on campus.
While “four out of five students indicated that valuing diversity is ‘very or extremely’ important to their future success and that they often try to create a welcoming environment for other students on campus”, it is equally important to ask whether underrepresented students feel the efforts from the institution or their peers.
Finding Yourself in STEM (FYIS), an initiative launched in the spring 2018, semester through the UW Madison Libraries and BioCommons, was aimed to give underrepresented students in STEM a chance to meet, discuss difference and to build community with one another. It was a collaborative effort from a group including faculty, a science & engineering librarian and students.
As a health and sciences student, I was motivated by personal experiences to be part of the FYIS team. One of the incidents I continue to grapple with happened when I was a sophomore in college. During a mid-sized lecture, a white male professor told a white female student to stand up and project her voice as she answered his question. He added that, she was speaking so softly, it was as if she were an Asian student.
So what does it mean to be a woman of color in STEM? How do I navigate networking and conference spaces when I am one of very few people of color? Am I only “seen” when I am highlighted for my success? How do we have conversations with those who believe that we have already “achieved” diversity and inclusivity? Representation is important, but how do we discuss issues beyond representation and recognize that representation alone is not the answer? Obviously, I knew these were no simple questions to answer, but I hoped that through our efforts to initiate conversations about the STEM climate, people will start having these conversations regularly.
The FYIS series kicked off with a student-facilitated dinner discussion in collaboration with the Multicultural Student Center. Among the student facilitators at the dinner discussion was Miona Short, a May 2018 graduate and the first black woman to graduate from UW Madison with a bachelor’s degree in Astrophysics. In addition, Short double majored in Spanish with a minor in Gender and Women’s Studies. “The problem isn’t necessarily diversity,” Short shares. “When a department or a space becomes ‘diverse’, the problem is often thought to be solved. The problem with diversity is that it tends to exist at the exclusion of inclusion and retention.”
“One thing I’m still trying to figure out is how not to be the elephant in the room, but not try to shrink myself invisible,” she adds. “I’d also like to know why I can see Orion in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres…but maybe that’s an easier question.”
Ashaleigh Worrell, a rising junior majoring in Chemical Engineering, reflected that through the event she realized sometimes people in STEM may not discuss social justice issues because it does not directly affect them. “Given the demographics on campus that discussion doesn’t occur often enough…I hope that everyone in the STEM community can learn to be better allies for each other,” she says.
The second event of the FYIS series was a panel discussion at the BioCommonsin Steenbock Library, featuring a recent graduate, a graduate student, staff and faculty. The panelists were Dr. Ann Fink (Wittig Fellow in Feminist Biology, CRGW), Emilie Hofacker (Director of DDEEA STEM initiatives), Bukky A. Leonard (Math Teaching Specialist), Dr. Jeri Bryant (BioCommons Program Director, WISCIENCE), Nicholas Santistevan (Science and Medicine Graduate Research Scholars) and Abiye Agbeh (former BioCommons Ambassador).
Cole Thomas, another May graduate who earned a BS in Mathematics, attended both the dinner discussion and the panel. He said, “Many people don’t realize how isolating some majors are. There exists a lack of support in higher level classes, which has detrimental effects on students’ intellectual curiosity and motivation.”
“I think having a panel of minority students would help a lot because students who attend the panel can identify more with other students like themselves. It is also inspiring to hear from faculty of color about their experiences.”
Finally, the series concluded with a reception and keynote by Dr Jerlando F.L. Jackson, the Vilas Distinguished Professor of Higher Education and the Director and Chief Research Scientist of Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory (WEI Lab). Dr. Jackson is credited with over 100 publications in high-impact journals, has written several books and has delivered speeches globally. Dr. Jackson and the WEI Lab, are one of the few figures nationally researching science in higher education with goals to provide interventions to increase the presence of underrepresented groups in the scientific workforce.
From the beginning to the end of the event series, students continued to question how we can get more students and the faculty to engage in conversations of representation and community in STEM. Those who need to hear the conversations are often absent in such spaces.
While many faculty have been attending WISELI sponsored events, UW-Madison does not require all faculty to attend cultural competency workshops. Students of color not only have to confront the majority students, but also have to challenge the faculty, at the risk of their academic performance. If an institution truly believes in providing support for underrepresented students, then they should ask “How are we excluding them?”
I am thankful for the opportunity to be part of a space like FYIS, and I believe this is a space that many students can benefit from. However, this is only the beginning. There is much more work that needs to be done to shift how we think in STEM and challenge the consciousness of STEM fields.
Finding Yourself in STEM (FYIS) will continue in the 2018-2019 school year and will collaborate with various STEM departments on campus. Currently, FYIS is reaching out to faculty and staff about broadening participation in STEM classrooms and labs. The tentative schedule for the 2018-2019 academic year is a STEM student dinner in the Fall and a speed-mentoring session in the Spring.
by Hana Lee (B.S. Kinesiology, 2018)
Follow UW-Madison FYIS on Facebook for more information: https://www.facebook.com/wiscfyis/