Misery Loves Company: Systematic Oppression in Higher Education

I have a love-hate relationship with graduate school. My entire life I have been waiting to be in an environment where I can be my absolute best, to be around other intellectuals and to cross the barriers of knowledge with peers that have the same goals and dreams. During my last months as an undergraduate student, my professors tried to prepare me for graduate school by constantly reminding me how difficult it will be and how miserable graduate students were. However I remained confident that I could overcome any obstacle that was thrown at me. I mean, let’s be real – I have had my fair share of adversity throughout my life.

The first week of my graduate school experience required that I take a week-long writing course with my Meyerhoff cohort. If you are unfamiliar with Meyerhoff, it is a nation-wide fellowship program for minority students that fosters a supportive community in the predominately White field of science and technology. During that week (as well as during the Meyerhoff meetings that followed), we were encouraged to form friendships among the other fellows so that we would have friends to help us during the hard times ahead. Unfortunately for me, the majority of my cohort study on a different campus. Still, I remained strong in my belief that I could and would be successful no matter what.

Fast forward a few months and I was feeling depressions cruel, unrelenting grip. However, it wasn’t because I was struggling in classes or even in research — I was struggling to get along with those around me. I was told that it was because I was “too friendly” or “too ambitious” or “too arrogant”. I had worked with my PI (primary investigator aka the boss) to make a comprehensive four-year plan, for which I quickly received criticism from other students that it was not achievable. I worked basically everyday over winter break and was told that I would quickly burned out. As a first year, I was approved (by my PI) to start projects that are assigned to second year students and was told that there was no way I was ready. I was ignored and insulted by senior graduated students and basically told to “stay in my place”.

Over the course of three months, I had seemingly made enemies of most of the other students in the program. So, as a scientist, I started to analyze my own behaviors and interactions, trying to find my flaws. They were in my head. I began to isolate myself as much as possible. I thought “Keep your head down and just push through.” I soon found myself depressed. I was being rejected from the only place that I truly ever wanted to be.

I figured that the reason that people thought that I was coming on to strong was because they were struggling and I must have been making them feel insecure or threatened by my ambition and motivation. Unfortunately, I soon learned that this was not the case. There have been other students in the program who have achieved amazing and surprising things. I had to accept the hard truth — it was because of who “I am”. I would hear me peers discussing these students —

“Whoa he/she is a genius.”

“He just works really hard.”

“That’s impressive.”

My depression deepened when I finally accepted the difference between myself and these other high achieving students – I am a black woman.

Okay so this fucking sucks.

I have, luckily, made some really good friends and I have been meeting with a campus therapist for a while. Because of their support, I have stayed strong, academically. But everyday, going to my ‘dream job’ has become more and more of a struggle. However, I have recently had an epiphany — If I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t, then I should probably just do what I want! I have gotten this far in life because there was some part of me, despite all obstacles, that believed that I was capable of more. And the fact of the matter is, these people don’t know me! They will only know what I am capable of once I show them. 

And with that, I will continue my journey towards being a Doctor of Chemistry and changing the world for the better. And if anyone has a problem with that, than they can enjoy being miserable without me.

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