Issues Impacting Higher Education in National and Global Platforms

A form of discrimination that exists in higher education in both the national and global platforms is ageism. Age discrimination does exist in the engineering discipline and does not necessarily require the existence of sexism and racism. In a report written by Demi Simi and Jonathan Matusitz, Ageism Against Older U.S. College Students: A View from Social Closure Theory, they examine ageism and its effect in the United States’ higher education system. Older students are said to offer capabilities that have not yet been obtained by their younger peers. With their insights and experiences, older students are more prepared, provide more reliability, and have garnered more values than the younger students. Despite these advantages, older students encounter a large amount of neglect regarding their interests and learning styles. This neglect may stem from the false premise from university members that older students do not require as much considerable attention. This, in turn, can render them disregarded and virtually invisible when it comes to public policies and objectives. This blatant disregard hinders a university’s growth and prosperity, so more options and opportunities to engage the older students and create a more diverse and inclusive environment where older students feel comfortable in voicing out their thoughts and ideas is vital. 

When entering their respective universities, older students come with the perception that they are marginal and possibly ostracized, feeling excluded from the mainstream culture. As time continues, this feeling can escalate. Older students, according to Simi’s and Matusitz’s report, shared their frustrations with the university’s admissions and counseling staff, who suggested that their real-world skills were the primary reason for their acceptance, no mention of their merit. Moreover, it was reported that the admissions and counseling staff that oversaw the undergraduates in the university believed that the first-year students all came straight from high school. These comments and false assumptions are not only annoying but create barriers in the institution. 

Despite some of the hindrances, the class participation rates of older students can be a lot higher than compared to their younger peers. Their participation in class discussions and overall student engagement is valuable and appreciated, especially by the faculty members in the university. Their dedication, maturity, and inspiration seen in their pursuit of their degrees is motivating. 

Now, several older students assume that higher education is necessary without question. They get inspired into enrolling at the universities to produce crucial life changes that cultivate new aspirations and new trajectories in their current conditions. For some, instead of circumventing the idea of pursuing a higher education degree, the unfavorable life circumstances are what motivate older adults to pursue a higher degree. Personally, I owe sincere gratitude to the older students in my department for their advice, encouragement, and enthusiasm during my graduate studies. Tackling ageism, which is apparent in higher education, as illustrated above, should be a priority in creating a more diverse and inclusive environment in the university system. The problem does not end in academia but transcends into the job market. 

Diversity and Inclusion in Engineering

An issue impacting my field is the limited number of underrepresented students and women pursuing a degree in material science and engineering or any engineering discipline for that matter. These underrepresented students are, but not limited to, first-generation, former foster youth, LGBTQ+, students of color, students with disabilities, and veterans. The lack of diversity in the engineering workforce has been a continuous problem despite numerous efforts over decades to remedy the situation. While one can say that diversity has increased as a result of the countless focused efforts, this engineering profession should not become complacent in this effort but rather become energized to further improve its diversity and inclusion situation for all students. There is colossal evidence to attest that the diversity in the engineering department student bodies is regressing. I get the impression that diversity has stagnated in the engineering department. In today’s society, there is a more erudite and articulated understanding for the need for diversity and inclusion; hardly viewed as an act of altruism. We are in an era where diversity and inclusion are business necessities to improve globalization, provide comfortability and acceptance for the wide variety of cultures in its student population, and ultimately enhance the engineering design and ingenuity needed for accomplishing novel research developments. Many have argued this diversity and inclusion situation stems from a lack of engineering “attractiveness,” more specifically its content and style of pedagogy adopted by its professionals. One recommendation one can propose to improve this situation is to focus on cultivating its form of pedagogy and limiting sole discretion to just engineering faculty members.




Intersectionality and the Workplace

By identifying as an African-American woman, there are a few ways one can use intersectionality in the workplace. The two macro-categories of this intersectional identity are one of ethnicity and one of gender. Habitually the dominant organizational culture in academia has viewed African American women as outsiders. With this being the case, the path to leadership development in the workplace for African-American women can be convoluted. An experience with its share of unique challenges and setbacks. As a result, to capitalize on a leadership role, one can find oneself withdrawing one’s identity and refraining from expressing full self-authenticity to attain credibility and acceptance in the workplace. In an effort for one to express full self-authenticity, safe havens are generated to protect from uninviting work environments that inhibit personal growth and perpetuate the need for survival. These points highlighted in Kimberlie Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins: Intentionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” 

So, to reiterate, diversity has been lacking in the science and engineering fields; not just diversity in gender but the underrepresented minorities as well. This is not just a statistic that I read about, but I see this more and more as I advanced to my upper-division courses. The number of African American students continues to decrease in all my classes, and this decrease in the number of African American students correlates to the limited number of females within the group. Even if there are times when one can feel that one does not belong, or one’s participation in class is being overlooked, I believe one should stay on course, and attain a good foundation in the engineering workplace and pursue leadership positions. With this opportunity, one can go on to encourage, mentor, and tutor students in an effort for them to develop an interest in STEM-related fields and research. As a woman of color pursuing an engineering degree, there are opportunities available to me due to my insights and perspectives as a woman of color that can aid one in reaching success. In essence, African-American women leaders are cultivated by these internal and external forces that affect their everyday life experiences. Thankfully as the growing need for diversity and inclusion continues to upsurge, so will soon the requirements be met. And as a woman of color, I can use my intersectionality to bring a voice to the urgent issue for the apparent lack of opportunities for women of color to obtain executive leadership positions.

In conclusion, due to the limited number of women of color in the engineering workplace, there appears to be an increased interest from others to understand the perception and experience of women of color. This increased interest can be advantageous for one since programs such as New Horizons Graduate Scholar (NHGS) and the National Graduate Education for Minority Students (GEM) Fellowship. These programs are intended to inspire, encourage, and to support underrepresented students, have emerged due to this increased need for diversity and inclusion. These programs have been useful for my growth as a graduate student and student leadership development here at Virginia Tech. 

Stereotype Threat – Quiet is Good

The stereotype threat that first comes to mind is this notion that “good black girls are supposed to be quiet.” Throughout my elementary and secondary school years (5-12th grade, primarily), I have been complimented for being quiet and keeping to myself. Most adults seem to equate this behavior with maturity. Some students simple-mindedly would insinuate this calm and quiet demeanor meant this black girl was not like “the other ones.” This unconscious bias where students and instructors would conflate “quiet” with “good” is concerning as explained in Kelly Hurst’s “Quiet Black Girls – and How We Fail Them.” From this perception manifests this idea that being invisible is advantageous, being “good” is expected all of the time, and this behavior is somehow rare for black students. There is evidence that this stereotype threat and assumption can hinder one’s perception of oneself and others, and can affect one’s behavior into adulthood. It does not provide the license for one to make mistakes, become expressive and creative, and ultimately feel comfortable to articulate one’s feelings and ideas confidently. During these adolescent years are when students need the most support and guidance to grow, not anxiety to continuously be “good” and discomfort that stems from ostracization. This not only impacts the student but those around them as well.

As an offspring to Ghanaian parents, in elementary school, I experienced scarring teases and bullying most in regards to my name, culture, and appearance; all too common for adolescent kids. As a result, I became uptight and highly-sensitive. I hardly ever spoke in class, rarely brought attention to myself, and felt the need to listen instead of voice out my opinions. I would feel this surge of anxiety when attention was brought to me by too many people. And so, I remained quiet and viewed this invisibility as a quilt for my protection. One does not outgrow this invisibility need but instead develops it moreover into adulthood, where it is almost expected of black women to move throughout society. One is then classified as having an introverted personality; learning later in life that this behavior is taught. And it is often this feeling of being ignored or shut down when one decides to express oneself. Growing up, I thought this was normal, but I was wrong. As mentioned before, this quiet behavior leads one to be classified as introverted, where society generalizes one who has this personality to be anti-social, arrogant, mean, nervous, weak, and dull. So this stereotype threat, first thought to be a compliment, can lead to one’s identity crisis where one is wrestling with: (1) how one is supposed to be, and (2) continually questioning “is there something wrong with me?” It has been said that the consequences of this invisibility and lack of self-identity can affect a student’s learning. 

A research study co-authored by researchers from the American University, Seth Gershenson and Stephan B. Holt, had concluded some of the following: (1) white male teachers are 10 to 20 percent more likely to have low expectations for black female students and (2) math teachers were significantly more likely to have low expectations for female students. These biased expectations by educators can have long-term effects on student outcomes. And it is this unconscious bias that encourages and perpetuates this quiet behavior seen in some black women. In the end, I believe that this overtly quiet behavior, and this need to be invisible is problematic. It does not foster one’s self-esteem, develop one’s speaking skills, or promote inclusion in the classroom. It does not take a scientist or clinician to see how schools can fail students of color through their unconscious bias. 

Introductory Blog

Hello everyone, I’m Senam Tamakloe, an MS candidate in the Materials Science and Engineering department here at Virginia Tech. I use she/her/hers pronouns. I am a former GEM Associate Fellow and a 2019 Diversity Scholar. My research work involves synthesizing bulk carbon samples, studying the effects of varying high temperatures and pressurized conditions, and utilizing various characterization techniques to determine the microstructure of the bulk samples. I hold a Bachelor’s of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Merced. At my alma mater, my past research experience involved assembling electrochemical energy systems (Li-ion batteries), fabricating an adapter PCB, and designing a protocol for categorizing single-celled algae. I enjoy conducting different engineering-related projects and being a service to others. During my downtime, I enjoy watching movies, baking, and taking walks.

As a closing note, I hope as a result of taking this course, Diversity and Inclusion for Global Society, I can improve on my understanding of diversity, inclusion, and equity beyond the baseline definitions.