Being an African-American undergraduate on a predominantly white campus comes with its share of challenges. Although it is impossible to name all of them, some stand out in my mind. Specifically, getting adjusted to being the only African-American in your class, having to abandon old study habits, the lack of African-American faculty members with whom to identify, and finding the time to complete a variety of tasks in a limited amount of time.
To tackle these obstacles, I embraced the idea of forming study groups, developing time management skills, participating in organizations, visiting my teachers during office hours, adopting a mentor, and networking. Many of the challenges that I face daily in graduate school are analogous to the challenges I encountered as an undergraduate. Thus, many of my experiences and solutions can be applied at either level.
One of the hardest things that I had to do as an undergrad was to learn to study in groups. All through high school and the beginning of college, I typically studied alone. At first, I shunned the idea of studying with a group because I didn’t think the experience would teach me anything that I didn’t learn in class. To my surprise, I actually benefited a lot more from studying in groups than picking up information in the lectures because students were swapping ideas and strategies about how to approach and tackle problems. Studying in groups gave me the opportunity to teach and learn information from a student’s point of view.
The need for time management quickly became apparent as I tried to juggle classes, participation in clubs, and a social life. Somehow I had to find time to study, eat, relax, and visit teachers on a regular basis during office hours. In order to develop my time management skills, I attended classes sponsored by the Learning Assistance Center on my campus. In these classes, I learned how to effectively manage my time by creating daily, weekly, and monthly schedules in my planner and trying my best to stick to them.
Visiting teachers during office hours was quite intimidating at first because it required that I meet with the teacher one on one about the questions that I had about the subject. However, for the most part, I found that many instructors were friendly, patient, and willing to help me learn difficult concepts. Obtaining additional assistance from my instructors gave me the personal attention I needed to successfully master the courses.
Due to the shortage of African-Americans majoring in science and engineering, I obtained many benefits from participating in clubs and organizations geared toward the advancement and recruitment of African-Americans in these fields. I found that becoming active in these African-American organizations geared to science or engineering allowed me the opportunity to network with African-American students, faculty, and professionals in these areas. Two organizations that I had the pleasure of being involved with were the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers.
Another important skill that I developed was networking with non–African-Americans majoring in science at my institution. Although simply approaching non-African-Americans in classes was initially intimidating, I realized that joining diverse clubs and organizations would be extremely helpful in this endeavor. These social interactions allowed me to grow culturally, as well as to expand job searches, and join other study groups. As an African-American, I know that opening up to different cultures can be scary at first because we tend to gravitate to members of our own ethnicity. However, more often than not, all participants can mutually enjoy the benefits of such relationships.
Currently, I am a graduate student at another predominantly white university. This experience is much less challenging because I overcame many of its pitfalls as an undergrad. Graduate school comes with its own set of challenges, but some things haven’t changed. Time management and networking are still important. I’m taking fewer classes than before, but I find that the workload is still very demanding. One of the best ways to ensure success on either level is to set realistic, measurable goals. Some should be short term and others long term. Developing ideas of what you would like to accomplish serves to give direction to your studies. Maintaining a level of success in an undergraduate institution and graduate school comes with hard work, perseverance, but most important, preparation.
Ms. Chanel Fortier is a native of New Orleans, Louisiana, and is currently a Ph.D. student in the department of chemistry at the . She can be contacted at .