Two-Day Summit Creates Space for Black Students in STEM

February 22, 2019

Erin Ulrich ’18

Kaitlyn Rivers standing in her biology lab.
Kaitlyn Rivers ’20, chair of the Black Scientists Guild.
Photo credit: John Seyfried

Hosted by Oberlin College’s Black Scientists Guild and the Black History Month Committee, STEM in Color will highlight the academic and career journeys of black professionals, alumni, and current students in STEM fields.

STEM in Color will take place from February 23-24. Presenters will share their experiences navigating academic and career spaces that are notoriously nonrepresentative of people of color. Speakers include Oberlin alumni, current students, STRONG scholars, as well as professionals in careers ranging from internal medicine to computer science. The summit will also include a resource fair, in which current students can see firsthand the resources available to them, including campus partners such as the Multicultural Resource Center and the Black Scientists Guild (BSG).

After a lengthy hiatus, the BSG was recently relaunched by Olivia Woods ’19 and Daniel Mukasa ’19. Junior Kaitlyn Rivers, a biology major and art history minor, sought support from the BSG herself from then-chairs Woods and Mukasa before taking on the role of chair.

Rivers says that the summit came as a response to students’ concerns that they lack the professional development skills and preparation not only to pursue, but imagine themselves in STEM careers.

“Due to the lack of representation in STEM, lack of professional preparation, and imposter syndrome, many students of color choose not to pursue STEM majors,” she says. “This yields a massive impact on the participation and retention of these students.”

In addition to bringing students face-to-face with leaders in STEM fields they can network with, the summit will also provide students with a platform to exhibit their own research. Rivers says that this opportunity is one of the reasons the event is open not just to people of color and to mark Black History Month, but to professors as well. “I want everyone to join in, celebrate these students, and be allies in these kinds of situations,” she says.

Kaitlyn Rivers smiles in the biology hallway
Kaitlyn Rivers ’20
Photo credit: John Seyfried

The summit is not only intended to poise students for professional success after graduation, but it specifically opens up room for conversations about underrepresentation in STEM. By bringing in black professionals who have succeeded in their fields in the midst of adversity, students can feel that they, too, can follow in their footsteps.

“They will talk about what it’s like to be a minority in a high-demand field that doesn’t seem to have a demand for people of color,” Rivers says. “A lot of times, your career looks just like your undergraduate and master’s degree programs: you’re the only person of color in the room.”

Although STEM in Color is a distinct example of the support the BSG extends to its students, the organization is a constant source of encouragement and guidance for students throughout the academic year. In addition to providing mentorship and professional development support for black students, the BSG connects students to internships, funds students’ travel and registration expenses for conferences, and provides monetary support for additional college expenses, such as textbooks.

In addition to tangible support, such as opening a workspace in the Center for Learning, Education and Research in the Sciences (CLEAR) during reading period where students could study, Rivers also acts as an intermediary support for students, answering their questions and providing them with someone to lean on. “It’s my job to make them feel included in the departments and make sure they are on the right track,” she says.

Rivers says that undertakings such as creating a study area in the CLEAR center and organizing the summit have been made possible with the support of one of her staff mentors, Nicollette Mitchell, director of CLEAR .

But Rivers doesn’t want the energy from the summit to lose steam at the end of the weekend.

“I hope that the summit has a long-term effect,” she says. “We want permanent guidance. I hope that professors, staff, and students realize that it’s possible to make change in the institution.”

Discover STEM in Color and other Black History Month events

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