Achieving a Ph.D. is never without challenges, sacrifices, lots of reading, writing and research. For some students, the process of attaining the degree comes with much more than academic stress.
For those who have not pursued advanced degrees, receiving a yes and choosing to enroll in a program makes it seem like the hard part is over. It’s as if that acceptance ends the need to “prove yourself worthy,” as one Black female UT doctoral student said. In reality, after proving yourself worthy of admission, the fight is far from over. Black female doctoral students should share their stories of ongoing battles with identity, self esteem and belongingness as they navigate the academic world.
Once enrolled, many students feel the pressure of imposter syndrome, a feeling that they do not belong, were accepted into their programs by mistake or that they cannot live up to the expectations of their programs. This feeling is further intensified for Black women who represent such a significant minority among the student body at prestigious universities like UT.
Black female students consistently represent the lowest numbers among the university’s undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students in demographic reports. While less than 5 percent of the overall student body are Black students (4.6 percent), less than 2 percent represent Black female doctoral students. Black faculty — students’ potential mentors and advisors — represent a mere 4.1 percent of the faculty population across the UT campus, so chances are slim that students will have opportunities to interact with women like themselves to advise them through their unique experiences. Once enrolled, finding and building supportive networks of like minded individuals, while keeping oneself encouraged and motivated, can be one of the greatest challenges outside of scholarly demands.
Cultivating relationships may be a challenge for any student, but finding a relatable network is especially difficult for some Black female doctoral students who tend to be older and at different points in their lives than undergrads. Significant others, children and other responsibilities often take precedence over building friendships that can serve as support systems to keep students feeling welcomed in academia.
With societal and racial tensions discussed in today’s mainstream media, academia can feel like a microcosm of the very things that make Black women feel like they may need to work a bit harder to belong than others. It’s felt in the need for a double-minded consciousness that one must have while constantly being seen as an exception within a system that thrives on meeting diversity quotas and interest convergence.
All UT students are exposed to the air of privilege that wafts across our sprawling campus, making it easy to overlook students who struggle to adapt while staying true to themselves. As we are expected to adapt to campus culture in order to thrive, the bar for adaptation should be raised to include understanding of all students’ experiences — including those in minority groups.
The experiences of Black women are far from monolithic, but the strings connecting each person’s story are noticeable. When she joins a degree program, becoming a member of an even smaller group of Black women pursuing an advanced degree than undergrad, her story becomes more nuanced and worth sharing.
If nothing else, the possibilities for learning from and connection to the experiences behind the many perspectives and backgrounds of Black female doctoral students can be instrumental prompts for change to help make higher education a safer and more inclusive space for Black women at UT.
Cort is a Curriculum and Instruction doctoral student from Boston, Massachusetts. She is an associate editor. Follow her on Twitter @tiyenaeemahcort.