Growing up in a poverty-stricken rural area in North Carolina, that most people aren’t even familiar with greatly influenced the way I view myself and how I judge spaces that I am present in.
I grew up with mostly Black, Hispanic, and Native American students from K-12th grade. During 13 years of school, I had maybe no more than 10 white classmates. Needless to say, I was used to being part of the majority. Also, in a space where most of us grew up in the same or similar socioeconomic class, we had an understanding of one another that seemed to overlook racial barriers most of the time; or at least I did.
After high school, I left to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the Illustrious North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, which is a top-ranked public Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in the US. I went there because upon visiting during childhood and a few times during high school, it still felt like home. The faculty and students were and still is one big family. At NC A&T, I was once again a part of the majority.
During undergrad, I realized that medicine was not going to be a path I pursued. I was intrigued by the idea of antibiotic resistance after my grandfather succumbed to endocarditis- an infection of the inner linings of the heart and received an expensive antibiotic treatment that eventually stopped working. Also, during this time, I was exposed to research by my wonderful microbiology professor. I knew I needed more research experience, so I applied and received a research internship at UNC-CH going into my junior year of undergrad. It was during the last few weeks of this 10-week internship that I actually noticed that I was there was only one other Black student working in the same space as myself, who wasn’t a part of this internship.
That was pretty much it; I didn’t put much thought into it. The lack of representation didn’t really hit home then.
Fast forward to right after undergrad where I started a research post-bac to increase my chances for being accepted into a research-intensive PhD program, I returned to UNC. Although I was always around people who rooted for me and who push me to succeed even to this day as a second year PhD candidate, I cannot help but notice every time I walk into a space and I’m the only one of my skinfolk present. I had never seen a Black neuroscientist faculty member until about a month ago and he was a PI at a research-intensive university. I was simply amazed that he is doing a job and research that I understand, in my field.
Because where I’m from, there are no Black neuroscientists. In that moment, this whole PhD thing became a bit more obtainable.
My point here, is that there’s power in representation. There’s just a certain type of confidence in seeing someone like you obtain a level of success that you haven’t seen before or rarely in your culture.
From a mental health standpoint, being the only one or few Black students working toward a biomedical PhD can be both discouraging and encouraging. It’s discouraging because coming from an HBCU, I was surrounded by brilliant Black students, who simply lacked the exposure and/or resources to get to next stage of their career. It is easy for one to say “Well why don’t they look for opportunities themselves?” The question to ask yourself, is if you were browsing through a website filled with individuals who are doing what you desire, but you don’t even see a smidge of someone who looks like you, would you feel empowered? As a young student who may lack the confidence in his or her abilities, you would most likely feel afraid and discouraged.
On the other hand, it is empowering because by powering through and obtaining this PhD, I can help many students of color reach this stage. I can give them the tools they need to endure just as my mentors gave me. Again, I am surrounded by amazing individuals, both students and faculty who pour positivity into me daily, but representation still matters. To sum everything up, as a Black student pursuing a PhD in the biomedical sciences, sometimes it’s lonely. Sometimes I’m discouraged or unmotivated. Sometimes I feel misunderstood or not understood at all.
However, I will use these feelings to push through so that I can be the someone that young Black and Brown kids look up to because this PhD isn’t just for me.
It’s up to pay back my ancestors whose backs I’m standing on for support and it’s for the young Black and Brown geniuses that are coming after me. So that they know that the stars are actually in their reach. So that they know that we are the stars.
Janay Franklin is a PhD Student in Neuroscience at UNC in Chapel Hill. She is also an active member of the PhD Balance Development Team.