"This will be the greatest learning experience of your life," my mother told me on my second day at a predominantly white public school. The previous day at the new school represented my first transition from a minority-rich environment to a minority-deficient one.
In terms of academics, I was well prepared. My performance on the barrage of entrance and placement exams demonstrated that I was performing well above the second-grade level. Yet, I was not prepared to sit comfortably amid the sea of curious white faces. I did not see anyone with whom I could identify. I missed my old school, a parochial microcosm of people possessing bronze-kissed skin tones richer and more plentiful than every brown and yellow color in my biggest box of crayons. I missed the familial atmosphere in which teachers nurtured each child, instilled in all a sense of community, and encouraged them to achieve their best.
In contrast, the teachers at my new school seemed less concerned about the overall development of each child and more preoccupied by school board regulations. In addition, the majority of African-American children enrolled there were in special education classes, stowed away like a dark secret and exposed to the general student body in carefully metered doses.
The numbers of African-American children in regular and accelerated classes were minimal. Isolation had caused them to be rather withdrawn and cautious toward one another. To me, adapting to this less-than-inviting setting would indeed be an adventure in learning.
As I grew more accustomed to my minority-deficient surroundings, I learned that I was not living in a display box inside someone else's world. In fact, my minority label did not entitle me to any special treatment (or mistreatment) by anyone, regardless of the labels they wore. In essence, I learned that everyone did not have my best interest at heart just because they wore the same minority labels as I. In some cases, I was even met with resentment and ridicule by them. Although this treatment upset me, I concentrated on my studies from year to year, believing that the content of my school transcripts, rather than the color of my skin, would make me more competitive for college scholarships.
To my dismay, though, I was not offered a scholarship by any historically black college or university (HBCU). So, upon graduating from high school, I chose to attend the smallest of the majority institutions that offered me a full scholarship, assuming that it would offer me smaller classes and a more close-knit environment.
Contrary to my belief, this institution was in an even smaller town and had the same personality of the primary and secondary institutions I had attended. Consequently, the negative effects increased exponentially with the decrease in the population. As the first semester became the second, I realized that I did not want to be in an environment where I felt like a permanent stranger. I NEEDED A CHANGE!
I transferred to Southern University and A&M College, one of the largest HBCUs, to bask in a minority-rich sanctuary similar to the environment I had left many years ago. To me, Southern was an oasis of culturally diverse individuals, aptly placed to satisfy my need to feel "included" instead of "tolerated." Many of the less-than-nurturing personalities that I had encountered in previous educational settings were still present to a smaller extent, but they did not bother me as much. Besides, I was so bedazzled by the positive aspects of the HBCU experience that the negative elements were effectively cloaked.
Not only was my intellectualism being nurtured but also my salubrity. I developed a deeper appreciation of my history and the contributions of my people. Knowing this, and witnessing it firsthand at times, showed me that what I wanted was not beyond my reach. For the first time in several years, I actually felt like I belonged somewhere.
Although academic resources were limited at times, the education I received at Southern was comprehensive. My instructors were quite resourceful and excited about the subject matter they presented. They challenged me to find alternative ways to solve basic problems and conceptualize ideas beyond the confines of the course requirements. In addition, they acted as mentors who guided and motivated me, reinforcing the fundamental teachings of my very first school.
Life was so fulfilling in my new HBCU environment that in the beginning I did not give serious thought to life after undergrad. With each passing semester, however, the urgency of "What next?" grew until I could no longer disregard it. So, I submitted applications and résumés to several chemical companies. My instructors also encouraged me to consider graduate school as a postbaccalaureate option. Even though my HBCU experience left me confident about my level of preparation, I was still a little apprehensive about returning to a minority-deficient situation to further my education or start a career.
In the months prior to my entering graduate school, I explored my options in the workforce. Much to my dismay, technician-type tasks to which I was assigned were more often tests of physical endurance than of intellectual challenge. Also, many of my co-workers did not possess a degree, nor did they share ambitions of advancing their careers any further. Although my supervisors were impressed by how swiftly and accurately I learned and completed the tasks they had assigned, they were not interested in my ability to troubleshoot and develop more efficient methods for doing things. In a very short time, I realized that if I wanted any of my contributions to be considered by anybody, I would have to show proof that my ideas were actually worthy of consideration. The most practical means by which I could get my proof was by accumulating it in graduate school.
I knew that graduate school was going to be more challenging than undergraduate had been. Also, I felt that in order to thrive in my new environment, I needed to be around people of color who were doing what I was setting out to do. Yet, I did not want to travel too far away from home to find an HBCU with the graduate program I wanted. I did not want to be the only person of color in the entire department at a majority institution either. So, I chose to enroll at Louisiana State University ( LSU), a major research institution and the largest producer of African-American Ph.D. chemists in the nation.
When I first entered LSU's graduate school, I still expected to encounter the same less-than-inviting atmosphere as in my childhood. The minority presence in LSU's graduate chemistry department made my transition more palatable, however. Not only was there a generous cache of African-American graduate students, but there was also an array of students and faculty members from other ethnic bases with which I could interact. We readily established peer-mentoring relationships to enrich our graduate school experience. Although the atmosphere was highly competitive, we were still very supportive of each other's endeavors. Also, there were those who readily offered advice and an empathetic ear (or shoulder) when necessary. Through the frustrations and politics of the graduate school ordeal, my comfort rested in the fact that I was not dealing with it all alone.
What made the LSU graduate chemistry department different was that it was actively taking strides to establish rapport among individuals beyond race, gender, and cultural lines. Departmental functions provided opportunities for unification in chemistry, not separation along social lines. In addition, participation in organizations addressing race, gender, or cultural issues was not discouraged, provided that it did not take precedence over the main goal of obtaining our degrees.
To imply that the LSU chemistry department did not have its share of social woes would be a gross exaggeration. However, I believe that we strove to make our differences unite us, not divide or distract us from our main purpose for being there. This may be the reason why other departments on campus are actively developing strategies to diversify their employee and student bases.
Now that I am nearing the end of my graduate school tenure, I recognize that the "greatest learning experience" of which my mother spoke encompassed much more than academics. The fact is, I belonged wherever I was. In the minority-deficient environment, I learned what I could not live with. In the minority-rich environment, I learned what I could not live without. All in all, my journey from one to the other has shown me that such things can be integrated into an environment that makes even the most foreign of strangers feel like a family member.
Bio sketch. Kimberly Hamilton is a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, and is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Louisiana State University. For more information, please e-mail Kimberly at firstname.lastname@example.org.