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Regina Sierra Carter received her Ph.D. in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She currently works as a Teaching and Learning Librarian at the University of Virginia.


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Graduate school is a beast.


You are sleep-deprived and work long hours for little pay. Your scholarship and smarts are constantly scrutinized. To top that off, you are often compelled to swim through Olympian-sized pools of (departmental/college/university) politics. Graduate school is a grueling process. It can be difficult for anyone… especially young, gifted, racial/ethnic minorities at predominantly white institutions (PWI). I say this as a Black woman who has attended PWIs for my undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees.


I was (and am) fortunate. Although I attended PWIs for my postsecondary education, I was constantly surrounded, empowered, and mentored by professors and administrators who either looked like me and/or made it a priority to understand the unique opportunities and challenges I faced as a Black female intellectual.


My doctoral department had such a high concentration of Black students, some jokingly referred to it as the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) on-campus. The College of Education (more specifically, the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership or EPOL, formally known as the Educational Policy Studies Department) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) is known for heavily recruiting, mentoring, and graduating underrepresented scholars from all walks of life.  I grew so accustomed to seeing people of color in my program that I naively began to believe that this was the norm.


I received a reality check when I applied to and was admitted to another graduate program at UIUC, which will remain nameless. Unlike EPS, there were not many people of color. There were also very few professionals of color represented within that discipline at the time, which still holds true today.  


Transitioning from a department that had many people of color to a department with few (students, faculty, and staff of color) was jarring. I was feeling slightly overwhelmed. (Mind you, at the time, I was one year into my doctoral program when I decided to pursue a second master’s degree.) Yet it was so much more.


Moreover, I felt isolated so I made it my priority to connect with other students of color. For example, I intentionally scrolled through the online class roster in search of other racial/ethnic minorities who were enrolled in classes with me. There was usually at least one other person of color enrolled, which was comforting. However, as I progressed through my program, I realized that I could not limit myself to only taking classes if I was sure there would be another person of color present. This would have been a disservice to me, my peers, and my professors. If need be, I would use my voice as a scholar of color (while rejecting the notion that I served as the sole voice of my racial/ethnic group). I discovered that this was powerful and more than enough.


I also found solace in the fact that students of color in my new department mobilized to form our own support system that consisted of students of color at both the master’s and doctoral level. In essence, we created our own community within our larger departmental community. Through that student of color group along with compassionate faculty and staff (they exist!... though it might take some work to identify them), I finally found secure footing in my new department. It was only through these concerted efforts and by my being intentional that I (a young, gifted, and Black scholar) could be free to be fully and unapologetically me.


For those of us (although I have graduated, I am including myself in this mix because I will never graduate from this Black body. Truth be told… I don’t ever want to) who are struggling to find a space and place for ourselves, I offer the following wisdom that is as old as time yet still undeniably true:


1. Being young (in age or heart), gifted, and a scholar of color is absolutely beautiful. Celebrate yourself and one another even if some refuse to acknowledge our expertise and existence.

2. There are times when you will have to go out and find the support/networks/help you are looking for. Everything cannot be found within your respective departments and this is okay. In fact, it is encouraged that you meet folks from other departments and within the community. You can benefit from their help/expertise and vice versa. During my time at UIUC, there were cultural houses that served as safe spaces and other support systems in place.

3. All the [insert demographic group of choice] kids (at times) sit together in the cafeteria for a reason. We may congregate for leisure or a cause, but that should not automatically give those who are outside of our group cause to call the cops or be unnecessarily alarmed. It is not a crime to want to surround yourself with like-minded people or folk who look like you.

4. Don’t be hoodwinked. Just because someone looks like you (or shares your background/interests) does not mean that that individual likes or even cares about you or your well-being. Identify friends and allies not by their physical appearance/background, but their trustworthiness and how they treat you.

5. Don’t be afraid to mobilize. If you are in need of a group, space, etc., do not be afraid to go out and seek it or, if it does not exist, create your own. That’s how our Student of Color group formed.

6. There is a time and a season for everything. There are times when it is appropriate to give someone a piece of your mind. Yet, other times, this may not be the best approach. Please remember you only have one mind and cannot afford to lose (or lend out) too many pieces. Stay whole.

7. “Stake your claim.” Believe with every fiber of your being that you belong in your respective program(s) and have exactly what you need (and in some instances exceed what is required) to obtain your degree and embrace your divine destiny.


What wisdom and/or advice do you have for young, gifted scholars of color in graduate school during such a time as this? Please speak the truth in love.


[Image provided by Flickr user COD Newsroom and used under a Creative Commons license]

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