By Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Pamela E. Harris, Vanessa Rivera Quinones, Luis Sordo Vieira, Shelby Wilson, Aris Winger, and Michael Young
In our times of need, we have come together, often behind the scenes, through all mediums and platforms, to make space to discuss the many challenges that we have experienced as underrepresented minorities navigating academic environments within the mathematical sciences. Unfortunately, this work is often unseen, it is personal, and requires long-lasting relationships that are based on mutual trust and a sense of belonging within the mathematical community. Something that can take years to cultivate or even find.
Yet, we are all at a stage in our career where we can look back and without hesitation point to these relationships as a key source of support which helped us complete our graduate degrees and helped us advance professionally. This was not always there for us. In fact, our graduate school years were not only formative, but they were also full of uncertainty. We could not help but wonder:
- Am I good enough to do this?
- Is it OK to spend time on something I am passionate about that is not school?
- Why do I feel so alone in graduate school?
- Why am I doing even this?
- Why is everyone nodding during this talk?!? I don’t understand a thing these people are saying!
These are questions which many graduate students have, but being underrepresented means we face additional burdens, such as working to quiet an everyday voice telling us that we are not there simply because we checked the right boxes, we must avoid a nonsensical self-imposed pressure in which we represent our entire communities. Also, being the only graduate student of color in a graduate program can be or is an incredibly isolating experience and a huge culture shock.
The fact that there is much work to do to support underrepresented students succeed in completing their graduate programs were leading points of discussion at two meetings of Networks of Mathematicians of Color and Latinx Mathematicians Network, both workshops hosted by the American Institute of Mathematics. As the workshops’ names imply, each of these workshops addressed the need for programs specific to brown people and black people separately. But, as can be expected, there are many commonalities facing underrepresented communities, as a whole. In particular, the need to create spaces and communities where we can flourish together both personally and professionally became a recurring theme. While each AIM group independently brainstormed programs designed to give a survival toolkit for black/brown students, we were inspired and motivated by the EDGE Program which has been successfully mentoring women as they enter and complete graduate programs for over 20 years, and all with excellent results.
Thus we have come together to create and organize Math SWAGGER: Summer Workshop for Achieving Greater Graduate Educational Readiness, a FREE five-week (virtual, due to COVID19, but we hope to be in person in future iterations!) summer program for any underrepresented student who will be enrolled in a mathematical/statistical graduate program in Fall 2020. The goal of the workshop is to provide support, but most of all community, amongst graduate students of color. We hope that students walk out of this as a part of a tiered mentoring network. One where they find community with peers and potential mentors to which they are able to stay connected throughout their careers.
The program will have students and facilitators meet virtually three times per week for 90-minute discussions on predetermined topics centered on the challenges faced by underrepresented students in those programs. We plan to discuss topics such as motivation, which centers the question “Why are you attending a mathematics graduate program?” and how this question is central to success in grad school. We also will not shy away from having difficult conversations, as an example, we will have a session on “Dealing with Whiteness,” where we address the experience that predominant narratives are white narratives, and how we can navigate through such environments while remaining true to ourselves and our identities.
In many ways, for students of color and those from underrepresented backgrounds, the topics we discuss represent only a subset of challenges they will face in their journey to complete their graduate degree. It is because of this that throughout the Math SWAGGER programming, our main effort will be placed on offering participants space and opportunity to connect with other students and faculty that can offer advice, support, and a safe place to have these difficult conversations. Not only do we expect that Math SWAGGER will equip students with tools to navigate their graduate program and be successful, but it will also open the door to a wonderful community among peers, faculty, and mentors.
The importance of getting connected to a community and network of mathematicians, cannot be overemphasized. Having such a network has shaped our own experiences with mathematics and has built a sense of belonging within each of us. Unfortunately, many of us did not feel like we belonged until much later in our careers, and for far too many of us, that sense of community comes too late.
Thus it is our hope that by participating in this program each student will be able to transform their graduate experience in a meaningful way and leave the program having started connections that will have profound impacts on their careers, so that they too can be unapologetically themselves in math.
[Applications to participate in Math SWAGGER are due May 22, 2020, and the application can be found here.]