by Markeda Newell, PhD; Assistant Professor of School Psychology, Department of Educational Psychology; University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Many students of color will report that one of the challenges of being in graduate school is feeling like you have to prove your intelligence to not only your peers, but also your professors. Experiencing this feeling in many ways can be strange for students of color because you have achieved and been considered bright throughout your academic career, which is how you got to graduate school in the first place! Nevertheless, graduate schools are places where there are even fewer people of color and in many ways several significant barriers remain. To exacerbate this feeling, oftentimes there are only one or two students of color within any given cohort, program, or department. Moreover, faculty, staff, and students may not have had many interactions with members of your racial, ethnic, linguistic, or cultural group. To add another element to this situation, being a student in graduate school means being a student that demonstrates their skill and knowledge so that faculty can see that you will be successful after you obtain a degree. However, feeling the need to prove your intelligence goes beyond this basic (across the board) demonstration of knowledge and skills. Instead, students feel that their peers and professors do not think they have the capacity to actually complete the work let alone complete the work at a high level. So, what are my thoughts on how to handle these feelings and overcome these feelings?
As an African American woman who completed a program where I was the only African American student in my cohort, my first piece of advice would be to build up your self-confidence! You did not get to where you are by luck. It took a lot of hard work oftentimes in the face of significant adversity. To overcome those obstacles and get to graduate school, you probably have done some of the hardest work you will ever have to do. So, recognize that accomplishment and be proud of it! Rarely have I heard that a student of color has been given anything. You have to earn it and you did! My second piece of advice would be to continue to have mentors from undergraduate or even high school who were very supportive of you. They were there when times were tough before, so let them be there for you now. They also have witnessed your academic strengths, so they can be good cheerleaders and reminders for you. My third piece of advice is to try to form relationships/friendships with your cohort mates. You will soon realize everyone has some doubts about their knowledge and skills; this will be a nice reality check for you to see that everyone has their doubts and so in some ways you may not feel as isolated in your feelings.
My final piece of advice is PROVE YOUR INTELLIGENCE! Remember, you may be one of the first students of color to ever go through that graduate program. Therefore, you may be breaking some of those remaining barriers and making it easier for those who will follow you. This is not always a responsibility that students of color want to take on, but sometimes it is unavoidable. So, I would say embrace it and show why it is important to have diversity in graduate programs!!