A Harvard PhD candidate is helping women of color succeed in academia

Her award-winning “Women+ of Color Project” shares best practices for applying to grad school and succeeding in academia

By Ian Evans - May 7, 2020
Lavontria Aaron Juliana Garcia Mejia Jamila Pegues LaNell Williams
LaNell Williams (right), a PhD candidate at Harvard, with her colleagues in the Women+ of Color Project: Lavontria Aaron, a PhD candidate at John Hopkins University, and Juliana Garcia-Mejia and Jamila Pegues, NSF Graduate Research Fellows in Astronomy at Harvard.

When LaNell Williams applied to Harvard for her PhD in Physics, she didn’t expect to succeed. She arrived a semester early as a visiting student and took the attitude that this alone would be a good experience that could go on her CV. In terms of whether she would do her PhD there, she figured that despite her grades, there would be someone more qualified, someone better who would be more deserving of the place:

I was discouraged from applying in the first place. There’s a perception that even if people say you’re good, there’s still this hypothetical white or Asian man who has a 4.0 grade average who’s probably going to get it.

So, when LaNell was accepted into Harvard – becoming the first in her family to pursue a graduate degree – she was thrilled. And she also knew that she could do something to help others in a similar situation.

LaNell knew the importance of confidence – and understanding the process of applying to graduate school. She also knew that people from low-income backgrounds often didn’t have support in those areas in the same way other students might, and she also knew the role that societal prejudices play in discouraging people from applying to Ivy League institutions.

I think many people from many backgrounds think, ‘Well, no-one’s getting into Harvard anyway’  because it is tough. But for some people, on top of that, society creates this racist, sexist combination of messages that are imposed on you because of who you are and your background, and that plays a further role in discouraging you.

Adding to that is the lack of role models for minority students, said LaNell, now a PhD candidate. She noted that the university, her family, her peers and her department were all encouraging, and the message from them was that people could achieve whatever they wanted and that doors were open to all. However, that message of positivity and inclusivity bumped up against the reality that for many minorities, representation at top institutions is hard to come by. LaNell explained:

Statistically, there are very few Black and Latino women in physics. I often found that not only was I one of the few women on my course, I was one of the few people of color. That can be very unsettling when you’re looking for figures who understand the challenges you face, and for people who are willing to work with you.

That reality means that amongst the myriad pressures all students must deal with, people of color must weather additional prejudices, whether unconscious or overt. LaNell explained the ways in which student cope with this further challenge:

There’s always a decision you make about whether to spend energy addressing a situation where you’ve encountered racism. Some people will completely ignore the situation, some will confront it, some will internalize it. People have different coping mechanisms, and in many instances, you’re addressing these micro-aggressions. But it takes a toll on your mental health, and verbalizing that when you can’t see anyone else in the same situation is difficult.

LaNell found herself thinking about the advice she wished she’d had when she was applying to Harvard. She came up with the idea of a program that would step into people’s academic lives at a crucial point – just as they were looking to apply to college. That became the Women+ of Color Project, which recently won a grant from the Agents of Change Awards, run by Elsevier’s Materials Science journals.

The Women+ of Color project provides an open platform for women of color (WOC) to communicate about best practices for applying to graduate school, surviving graduate school, maintaining research productivity, and growing their academic careers. It aims to take a first step by providing an online classroom focused solely on how to apply to graduate school and what admissions committees are looking for.

“Our hope is to provide resources to WOC who may not have access to this information due to closed-off networks that provide an adequate amount of information about applications,” LaNell explained:

Hopefully this will begin to change the graduate applicant pool across the United States, thus changing the graduate student population, thus changing the number of WOC PhDs – ultimately affecting the number of WOCs who pursue academic careers and changing the face of academia.

And as we build our network, we hope to provide a wider range of knowledge and experiences that will assist our sisters on their journey.

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Written by

Ian Evans

Written by

Ian Evans

Ian Evans is Content Director for Global Communications at Elsevier. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s Global Communications Newsroom. Based in Oxford, he joined Elsevier six years ago from a small trade publisher specializing in popular science and literary fiction.

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