This week’s reading assignments hit really close to home for me. The chapters from the book on “How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do” by Claude Steele resonated with me from my own experiences as a Hispanic/Latino female student in engineering. The “stereotype threat” I have experienced has been, by far, strongest during my graduate degree at Virginia Tech. Even though my undergraduate degree was also in engineering and I had some of the stereotypical experiences of someone who identifies as a woman in this “male-dominated field”, these experiences were no challenge compared to my time in graduate school. Naturally, there are stark differences between the schools and within the specific departments when it comes to race/ethnic diversity. Florida International University, my undergraduate institution, has a student body comprised in its majority by Hispanics/Latinos (66.9%) compared to the 5.3% of the population for Virginia Tech (3.3% of the total graduate students). I don’t have the specific numbers for the department but it follows a similar trend for FIU which has an undergraduate and graduate program in my field, compared to the sole graduate program at VT where the total number of Hispanics has been fluctuating between 1 and 2 during my time here.
I realize that my experience was made even more unique by my citizenship status. I am a naturalized citizen and I moved to the U.S. after my high school graduation which, in that sense, makes my experience more similar to that of international students. But since my legal status was that of “citizen”, I did not receive as many opportunities to interact with groups of people with whom I would have probably found a higher affinity based on our backgrounds. I was left out of the school’s targeted notices about certain events and the notices I did come across, which specifically stated “for international students”, I excluded myself following my identification as a citizen. This all meant that my social network, for a period of time during my graduate career, was confined to my specific school program in which I felt like I was a minority of one as a Hispanic woman who moved to the U.S. in her late teens. Add to the mix that my physical appearance clearly wears those labels “Latina” “woman” “short”, that I have English as a second language and an accent that proves it; and you get a recipe for strong feelings that “you do not belong”.
In one of the chapters of the book by Steele mentioned above, the following footnote appears as the authors comments whether to make women and minorities aware of the “stereotype threat” they might face at different stages of their life, or even all throughout:
I would argue that there is value in making people aware of the potential situations that might trigger feelings of inadequacy in these target populations. Looking back at my experience in Blacksburg during my first few years at Virginia Tech, I keep thinking about how different my reaction to encountering certain feelings could have been, had I been made aware beforehand of all the stereotypes I was carrying with me and the role they could play in my career. And I definitely agree with the author that it would be even more important to equip people with the tools to mitigate the negative feelings that eventually drive certain populations away from STEM fields. I didn’t know that some of the experiences I have had were “textbook” microaggressions towards women in my field until I saw them play out in videos and read them in stories that clearly identified them as such. I once thought that those attitudes were particular to the characters in my story and that my feelings were only my own. The awareness of a more general problem and the specific framework for it marks the first step in being able to properly address it.