At Congress 2022, eight Black and racialized scholars participated in a roundtable discussion on the challenges of succeeding in spaces not created for them, hosted by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies. The discussion was free flowing and sometimes spontaneous, and below I have summarized some of the experiences shared by the participants.
Dinuka Gunaratne is a zoologist and Director of the Centre for Graduate Professional Development at the University of Toronto’s School of Graduate Studies. As moderator of the panel, Gunaratne started out with the opening question, “When you think about your future career or the one you’re on a trajectory toward, what is the one word that comes to mind?”
Evelyn Asiedu, co-moderator of the panel, is an environmental chemist at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, a job she began ten months ago. The daughter of African immigrants, Asiedu said she was a bit naïve going into grad school – she was good at science, thought she would do science, and be a scientist. Somewhere along the way, being away from family and a large diverse population, things started to impact her in both subtle and overt ways. In undergrad, she was involved in the Black Student Association, but no such thing existed when she started grad school, so she switched her focus toward advocacy for women in science. She now does research on equity, diversity, and inclusion. Regarding “imposter syndrome” – an experience shared by most of the students – Asiedu said, “You don’t need to be best at everything, just the best at the thing that makes us ourselves.”
Melanie Morrison is a radiology specialist at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) and completed her PhD at the University of Toronto. Though she found the transition into graduate school challenging, she stated: “I was fortunate, and it always comes back to mentorship.” She said she was heavily driven by mentors and the “people in her corner.” “Mentors are not always people who look like us,” Morrison said, “but finding mentors who don’t look like me but connect with me at a more personal level are important.” Though the panel’s focus was on race, Morrison said class is also important – she grew up very poor, and education was “her lifeline.” “Paying that forward, a lot of the work I’ve done is focused on mentorship,” she said. She does work with summer students from South Bay who grew up, like her, in homes without a parent to discuss university.
Marcus Singleton is a PhD candidate at OISE, University of Toronto. At an open mic event in his home neighbourhood of the South Side of Chicago, Singleton met a professor, an experience which “destroyed [his] idea” of what a professor was or should be. “This dude is a professor and from the South Side of Chicago like me,” Singleton said, amazed. Singleton pays it forward today by mentoring young people who are often told by teachers, guidance counsellors, and principals that they do not belong at places like the University of Toronto. Though he would like to be a professor one day, Singleton is also focused on staying in middle and high schools, to make sure kids have someone to tell them they can achieve, no matter what. He says it is vital to find colleagues to help you through your studies.
“Find a community, and if you can’t find one, build one. Be the community you want to see.” - Marcus Singleton
Cherie A. Daniel is a lawyer, professor of paralegal studies, and PhD student at the University of Toronto. She spoke about the problems of precarity as well as how the COVID-19 pandemic made her and her colleagues more adaptable. Daniel said it was important for Black and racialized students to be proud and unapologetic about their successes. “Stop saying we never thought we’d get here,” Daniel said. “That’s what they tell us. We must shake that mentality.” Daniel’s guidance counsellor told her to be an entertainer, not a lawyer like she wanted, because “her people had traditionally been great entertainers.” That’s one reason she says, “We have to stop this narrative of ‘I can’t believe.’ I’m here and I’m going to hold the doors for others.”
Karine Coen-Sanchez is a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa. She noted that there was only one full-time professor in her program who looked like her – other Black faculty were part-time or contract, and could not take her on as a grad student. “Creating the space is not only opening doors,” Coen-Sanchez said, “but retention, accessibility, resources for that space.” She takes issue with polite Canadian racism and says the conversation now happening in America needs to happen here. Coen-Sanchez created a community “from the grassroots,” including administrators, students, and anyone else who could advocate together. “I see myself continuously making space, not just for me, but my children, my children’s children, and everyone who looks like me,” she said. “And I will bring everyone else with me into the space. There is no point having it alone.”
Wesam AbdElhamid Mohamed is a structural engineer with a Masters of Engineering from the University of Western Ontario, and is currently Deputy Chair at the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). Mohamed immigrated from Egypt in 2016, and thought he would follow a traditional, “linear” trajectory – Masters, PhD, then a faculty job. But he was side-tracked by politics, serving two terms as Vice President of Advocacy for Western’s graduate students, and then starting a full-time, elected position at the CFS. He feels privileged to have taken on these roles, arguing that students can face “a lot of collective challenges as international students and racialized folks.” Mohamed’s own experiences showed him that sometimes international and racialized students see a different, darker side of their departments and supervisors than domestic or white students. “Why is this happening?” Mohamed asked. “How can we change it? And [my advocacy] came out of real struggles.” Though there is a lot of injustice, Mohamed sees a lot of community and solidarity on campuses, something that students can embrace. “Be proud of yourself!” Mohamed says. “Do not apologize for your accent or your language!”
Finally, Olatunji Anthony Akerele is a nutritional biochemist and scientific specialist at Eastern Health Newfoundland and Labrador. Originally from Nigeria, Akerele wrote in Yoruba on his university lab bench, “Don’t forget what brought you here.” Looking at that every morning helped to keep him going, regardless of what he faced. Throughout the discussion, Akerele kept returning to mindset: “What keeps you going is what you believe about yourself.” Akerele said, “I’ve seen myself achieve things I never thought I could.” He says too many students begin with a mindset of defeat, thinking their accent is too strong or their skin too dark. “That is who you are, and that is the way you talk!” he said. “I go to conferences, and I don’t change my accent because of anybody. I can’t do that. It doesn’t matter colour of skin or accent, you just need to make sense,” Akerele said.