This essay is a part of our “Crosstalk” series featuring stories from graduate students of color. Read more in our special issue, “Crosstalk: Graduate Students of Color Reflect on Lessons Lived and Learned in the Academy,” now available in hardcopy and on Project MUSE and JSTOR.
Carieta Thomas is a black, woman, graduate student, and international student.
On the first day of my doctoral program, the department hosted an orientation luncheon. As the new students were ushered into the room, we were handed a nametag and a table assignment. I envisioned the graduate program director laboring over the seating chart like a nervous couple trying to ensure a drama-free wedding reception. I sat at a round table with about five other people and soon found myself in an uncomfortable, but familiar, silence that seemed to go on for hours. All of the new students were seated at a table with their student mentor, other returning students, and professors from the department. We were instructed to get to know each other, and our student mentor would later introduce us to the rest of the room. Unfortunately, I was not at all surprised by what came next. Following another awkward silence, my student mentor introduced herself and proceeded to ask me questions about myself as we went up to the buffet for food and sat down again to eat. I told her my name, where I lived before moving here for the program, and where I had studied. After everyone had a chance to eat some of their lunch, each table was called on for the student mentors to give their introductions of the new student.
When it was our turn, my student mentor and I rose, then she promptly proceeded to forget almost every detail that I had just told her about myself. She mispronounced my name, said that I was born in the wrong country, and told everyone I had studied in a program and at a school I had never attended. As she fumbled through her almost completely fictitious introduction, she kept looking towards me as if for corroboration on the story she was making up about my life. I corrected her pronunciation of my name but felt there was not much else I could do, short of embarrassing her and redoing the introduction. With the introductions finished, my mentor began catching up with her cohort members, and I was left at the silent table again. By the end of the event, the professor that I had spent the most time talking with was an Indigenous scholar who was seated at the table a few chairs away. No others approached me for introductions, and I sat for most of the time counting the minutes until the end as people mingled and chatted around the room. At the end, my student mentor volunteered to show me back to the department to find my office, and that was the last time I have seen or interacted with her.
The fact that I was not surprised by how the luncheon played out did nothing to assuage the nauseous feeling I always get at events of this sort. I am a black, woman, and international student at a predominantly white institution, and these identities often make me both the elephant in the room and the mouse in the corner. It is a bemusing position to be in, rendered simultaneously hyper-visible and invisible. At events like the luncheon, I often feel invisible as I watch professors walk up to white students and chat with the ease of old friends. Meanwhile, I stand or sit scanning the room for someone who looks more like me. At other moments in the same event, I feel hyper-visible as people dodge me en route to another student, and I stand feeling like an over-sized version of myself that everyone’s been trained to avoid.
As networking is increasingly heralded as the best way to find a job in a difficult market, I have learned to insert and assert myself to make the necessary connections. However, what I usually find is shallow conversations that do not often lead to the fruitful relationships I need to channel into recommendations or referrals for positions not yet posted. In fact, it seems that various aspects of my graduate education are sites of networking that are especially unwelcoming spaces. Events where students are encouraged to mingle with professors in an informal setting, classrooms, the act of finding a supervisor, and academic conferences are all training grounds for networking with potential future colleagues. The act of networking is seen by most as a neutral and benign—albeit uncomfortable—necessary evil. However, for students sharing my identities (black, woman, international student), who are often the only one or one of the few people like them in the room, networking is fraught with microaggressions, silencing, and avoidance.
Unfortunately, experiences like the one I had at the welcoming lunch are not rare. In fact, for many with either visible or hidden marginalized identities, informal events requiring networking can be difficult terrain. This is made even worse by the constant pressure placed on students to create their own networks in academia. In recent times, many argue that networking is an important skill in preparation for the professoriate. It is believed to be especially helpful for students who are racial minorities and do not enter programs with the professional connections necessary to navigate graduate school (Davis and Warfield 2011). The general feelings of isolation that graduate students of color experience in the white, male dominated halls of academia (Smith, Allen, and Danley 2007; Yosso, Smith, Ceja, and Solórzano 2009; Hwang and Goto 2008) are amplified at informal networking events. The holiday parties, breakfast meetings with a visiting scholar, or the meet-and-greet with department professors are like performances before a hesitant audience.
At these informal events, people are left to mill around the room balancing small plates of food while searching for someone with whom to talk. It is no secret that people gravitate to others like them as it is more likely they understand your cultural references and have shared experiences. With minority faculty often on the fringes of many departments and pre-occupied with their own struggles against exclusion, students of color are left in a room without many people who feel comfortable enough to approach them (Gay 2007). Faced with this dilemma, I often find myself mustering the courage to impose my presence on a small group of clustered white professors and students; and as I do so I can feel the energy shift. These feelings are hard to explain, and I do not expect those without the experience to believe or understand. In one-on-one conversations with white professors, I often feel them pulling away like an invisible gravitational force drags them from me towards students with whom the conversation is not so labored. This is not to say that there are not white professors who engage with me and other marginalized students; what I mean here is that there is a certain level of comfort that is missing. It is easy to be in a space where we are supposed to feel safe and assured, but instead feel as we are “on the sidelines, watching the action instead of participating fully in it” (Gay 2007, 267).
I currently am taking courses towards gaining a Certificate of University Teaching and Learning; another thing on my list of CV lines that I hope will make me the exceptional candidate I know that I have to be because of my identities. These courses are made up of graduate students from across all disciplines, and some are designed in a cohort-style where you take seminars with the same people until you have completed that section of the certificate. We are supposed to take advantage of this chance to network with other students and professionals from all over campus. For some students, this is a daunting task.
The classrooms in the new expensive building housing the program are designed with the express purpose of fostering an open and inclusive environment. There is a lot of glass, the tables are arranged with chairs around all sides, and there are screens at both the front and back of the room to facilitate group work. I am the type of person who likes to be early for everything, another trait that I can attribute to my deepening anxiety. I usually arrive at least ten minutes early for each session, and I always sit in the same seat. At first, I did not notice how long it took for my table to fill up despite it being in the sweet-spot that students like—not too close to the front, but not all the way in the back. By the third session, I began taking note of it. As I sit, the room fills up around me, and my empty table begins to feel like a vast desert. I can see people enter, scan the room, and then trip over bags and computer cords in pursuit of a seat in a corner obscured by a white board. My table often remains empty until the stragglers rush in at mid-session and have to take the only seats left. Once my table is full and the group is tasked with a discussion, I am faced with a group of people whose fear of interacting with a person like me renders them silent until I break the ice and ensure them that I am neither dangerous nor unintelligent.
These sessions are even less diverse than my department, where I am only one of two black students in my cohort and one of four black doctoral students. Even though students come from all departments on campus, the probability of finding a person like myself is still like finding a needle in a haystack. In these situations, there is also the chance that a black person will believe they must separate themselves from me as part of their efforts to build their own network made up of people unlike themselves, so as to shore-up their own chances of success.
Like other sites of networking, these classrooms signal a sense of not-belonging. Our classmates are our future colleagues, and opportunities to take courses outside of our department allow us to engage in the type of interdisciplinary work that may be a part of our future careers. However, this experience signals several things to me. First, it is abundantly clear that other students do not value my contributions as a group member. Second, it provides yet another hint to the hostile reception I may face when I leave my department, traverse the quad, and cross the stage to graduate and face the “real world.” Here’s a harsh reality: the real world is filled with similar situations, negotiations, and exclusions for black people—especially for black women who do not have a perpetual smile on our faces. Furthermore, classrooms are the site of many microaggressions for black students. Here I evoke again the imagery of being the hyper-visible invisible. In class, we are under an extreme type of scrutiny that is barely discernable—very possibly indiscernible for those not experiencing it.
Finding a Supervisor
Finding a supervisor in my department is also an exercise in networking. The graduate program director acts as an interim supervisor for all new students. Students are then required to meet with professors over the first few months until they find someone who is a good fit. While this system is designed to ensure that students are not pressured into supervisory relationships that are not in their best interest, the department has inadvertently placed black students in a difficult position.
Black students, sadly, may already be used to this position. By the time we make it to the graduate level we have encountered various white professors, employers, and peers who believe that we are not as capable or intelligent as our white counterparts. In each case, we engage in an uneasy dance, feeling the need to prove ourselves worthy and intelligent while also screaming internally at our failure to extinguish the shameful need for that approval. For a black student sitting across a messy desk trying to explain their dissertation or thesis to someone they imagine they are asking a very large long-term favor they cannot repay, this is much more than an awkward situation. Indeed, the stakes are much higher. Even as I write this essay, I am self-editing and reminding myself that I am merely a doctoral student who has yet to even reach candidacy.
This summer I found myself once again at a table where no one bothered to speak with me, scanning the room for someone with whom I could feel a sense of kindredness. I was at a global conference on carework and finding it increasingly ironic how much time I spent being invisible. Both my supervisor and co-supervisor were also presenting at the conference but were taking the precious time in Toronto to meet with colleagues and old friends, so I was spending most of the time alone going from session to session. At lunch, the long tables in the magnificent hall reserved as the main gathering space were filled with people learning new names and excitedly explaining their research. For me, there was nothing more than perfunctory greetings and stiff waves followed by people scurrying away.
The most striking thing about this experience, and all of the others I have recounted here, is that all of the onus for fostering these relationships is placed on the people with the least power. Some will read this essay and think to themselves that awkward networking is something we all experience. They will remind themselves of a networking event where they spilled wine on their shirt and spent the remainder of the evening feeling insecure. This will make them almost certain that these challenges with networking are universal. This mistaken belief that networking is the same for everyone is clear in the endless media articles doling out advice and quick tips on effective networking. They fail to account for the uneven interaction that networking often is, especially when it occurs between a graduate student and a professor. For black students, the scales are even more unbalanced. Research conducted with African American, Latina/o, and European American doctoral students found that African Americans had the most negative experiences while in graduate school (Gay 2007). Every encounter is fraught with the long history of exclusion and discrimination that academia has meted out to black scholars and students since they have been reluctantly welcomed into its halls. Networking is no different. In these situations, black students have the burden of making ourselves more palatable to those around us, even as we face a room full of faces that look nothing like our own.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The title I have chosen for this essay has a double meaning. In addition to expressing the feeling of being simultaneously hyper-visible and invisible, it is also a reference to an African proverb that taught us the lesson that small things can have catastrophic impact. Dealing with these issues for most of my academic life has manifested in an intense form of anxiety that demands I fixate on the minutiae—every word in an email and every facial glitch in a meeting. I also find myself locked in an almost palatable and inescapable anger. It is only now that I have acquired the language to understand and explain the structural and external forces at play that I have come to know that these are not mere feelings in my mind, but the real-life consequences of continued marginalization. As I ponder the sustainability of my participation in this system, I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s advice regarding the utility and power of a black woman’s anger and encouraged to forge ahead. I have been lucky in both my master’s and doctoral programs to have found supervisors who are women of color. In my MA program, my supervisor and I had a shared racial and ethnic background. She also understood that for people of color and international students mentorship has to take a non-traditional form. Some have termed this “other-mothering” (Flowers et al. 2015), which refers to a holistic approach beyond mentorship that seeks to address both the personal and academic needs of students. In my doctoral program, my supervisor is a woman of color who has relatively recently been on the academic job market. As such, she seeks to provide advice that accounts for the challenges I may face ahead. However, I want to be clear that the burden of care should not land squarely on the shoulders of women of color; they are not, in most cases, the professors avoiding me in the hallways.
In a time where being a part of an influential network can be the difference between a tenure-track position and toiling away as an adjunct, more thought needs to be put into the insistence on networking and how departments can improve the experiences of othered and marginalized students. Not welcoming students into these spaces—in a way that attempts to balance the power differential and account for the tendency of people to gravitate to those who look like them—is a disservice. It impacts our sense of belonging and mental and physical health, all necessary elements to sustain our ability and passion for the years it takes to conduct research and write a thesis or dissertation.
There are few articles that address the issue of isolation among black graduate students without also recommending that those very students assume the responsibility for creating change. I propose both structural and interpersonal changes to the ways we define, approach, and engage in networking activities within academia. First, marginalized students should not be responsible for navigating these issues on their own. Structurally, it is important that departments re-configure their processes for incoming students with these challenges in mind. It is imperative, for example, that these students are not obligated through department requirements to initiate conversations, meetings, and relationships with those who hold the power in the interaction. It is more probable that this will be successful if, on the interpersonal level, professors cease posturing as the gatekeepers to academia to whom graduate students must give the secret password for entry. Second, networking events should be redesigned so as to minimize the likelihood of exclusion. There should be formal networking opportunities specifically geared towards marginalized and minority students. This will be more effective if the interpersonal interactions are also managed at these events. This can be achieved by including formal activities that direct people to interact with others, keeping in mind that professors should be asked to act as the initiators. Finally, all minorities should not be treated as a monolith. I have spoken from my experience as a black woman and an international student. I do not presume to fully understand the experiences of other marginalized students. As academia evolves to include new requirements and emphasize new skills, it is important to consider ways to bridge the gap and reach those being worn down by isolation, microaggressions, and exclusion. This is how academia will be able to retain the few talented people who most often do the work that addresses the issues of fellow marginalized people.
Davis, Dannielle Joy, and Markeba Warfield. “The importance of networking in the academic and professional experiences of racial minority students in the USA.” Educational Research and Evaluation 17, no. 2 (2011): 97-113.
Flowers III, Alonzo M., Jameel A. Scott, Jamie R. Riley, and Robert T. Palmer. “Beyond the Call of Duty: Building on Othermothering for Improving Outcomes at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Journal of African American Males in Education 6, no. 1 (2015): 59-64.
Gay, Geneva. “Navigating marginality en route to the professoriate: Graduate students of color learning and living in academia.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 17, no. 2 (2004): 265-288.
Hwang, Wei-Chin, and Sharon Goto. “The impact of perceived racial discrimination on the mental health of Asian American and Latino college students.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 14, no. 4 (2008): 326-335.
Smith, William A., Walter R. Allen, and Lynette L. Danley. “‘Assume the position… you fit the description’ psychosocial experiences and racial battle fatigue among African American male college students.” American Behavioral Scientist 51, no. 4 (2007): 551-578.
Yosso, Tara, William Smith, Miguel Ceja, and Daniel Solórzano. “Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate for Latina/o undergraduates.” Harvard Educational Review 79, no. 4 (2009): 659-691.