Ask Dr. Clemmons is a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory article  and my most recent article  to see what the column is all about, and then send me a question of your own!
Dear Dr. Clemmons:
I just started working on my Ph.D. in engineering in a town with a very small minority population, and I feel extremely isolated and alone. Complicating matters, I am the first person in my family to ever attend college, much less graduate school, so I have little or no support from my family when it comes to either financial or emotional issues.
A major part of the problem is that my family does not understand why I have continued my education instead of getting a "good job" somewhere. Also, I have heard that some of my family members are jealous of my perceived success and have stated that "I think I am better than them" because I have chosen to "distance myself" in order to go this route. I want to share my successes with my family, but I feel that a barrier has been raised because of their unfair and condescending view of me. I am desperately trying to establish a decent future for myself, as well as the family members in question. But I feel as if the opposite of what I want is actually happening, and it has become a personal nightmare.
Due to this situation, I am not only depressed, but disappointed that I am not happy in the pursuit of career and the future economic base I hope to establish. My undergraduate experience with regard to these issues was not much better, so I guess I should have been prepared to deal with this already. Please advise me on how to cope because it is going to be a long road to the Ph.D. and ultimate success, but I am determined to make it even if I have to do it by myself.
Alone in the Wilderness
Dear Alone in the Wilderness:
To be sure, the issue you describe is an extremely touchy one that is rarely discussed, even among those of us who have had to deal with it. However, I am going to do my best to help you, and rest assured that I will be frank in my discussion of this hot potato.
I believe you are representative of a particular segment of the minority population that deserves more attention and help. Why? You are working toward a better future and going against the grain of your own family and community to do so. I really respect your struggle and hope that you can overcome this adversity; I am sure you have overcome other roadblocks in the past.
At the risk of causing a "Bill Cosby-like" backlash in the minority community, I am going to remind you of some things that are considered controversial but are often true. If you are familiar with the "crabs-in-a-barrel syndrome"--a situation in which other crabs in the barrel will attempt to pull down the one crab trying to escape--you may see similarities in your case. These "crabs" should be your allies and should want to get out of the barrel too, but envy is a powerful human emotion. Everyone at some point in their lives has had to deal with it.
It is an unfortunate fact of life, but not all blood relatives are your allies. Family can be people you choose and do not have to be related to you by blood. Again, my comments are sure to be controversial, but we are culturally ingrained to deal with and respect family members, even if they do not really deserve it.
Instead, you should surround yourself with people who are forward thinkers and, most of all, supportive. Sure, continue to stay in touch with your family, if at all possible, but limit your interactions with the familial naysayers. Stay in touch with those who build you up and encourage positive behavior. I always say, "Don't expect people who don't understand your dreams to support you." If you keep this in mind, you won't get hurt. This is certainly easier said than done, but I truly do not know of any other way to make it as a minority in science and engineering with a nonsupportive family. You have got to establish your own fortitude and build your own "family," which is what most successful minorities have been able to do in some way. True strength really does come from within and through like-minded networks.
Your other point deals with lack of support when it comes to financial issues. In my opinion when it comes to creation of wealth, the minority community, in general, has a long way to go. It is extremely important for minorities to change the way they think and feel about financial issues. My personal take on this issue is because I wasn't taught financial mechanics in schools or by my family, like most other folks, I have learned to seek out the information from other sources. Sadly, this is not the norm for our community, and as a result, financial illiteracy has reached pandemic proportions in this country. Of course this is not only a problem for minorities, but it is also very important because most of us are just now able to be in a position to create real wealth.
A good resource for beginners on the topic of financial freedom is Talking Dollars and Making Sense by Brooke Stephens. This former Wall Street financial adviser does a really good job of explaining the basics in a way that makes it plain--what I call "breaking it down." This book contains a variety of resources that will help minorities who truly want to help themselves. In my mind if there were ever any way to help level the playing field for minorities, having a technical education and gaining financial literacy would be at the top of the list!
I encourage you to please get help with these personal issues, and your depression, from a qualified therapist or doctor on staff at your new university. They can often be very helpful and save you from a lifetime of pain. There is no shame in taking care of yourself so that others CAN depend on you.
As a starting point for conquering your depression, I encourage you to reflect on those people in your life, whether family or not, who have truly made a difference. Take inventory of those people who have made a positive impact in your life and give them a call or write them a handwritten note of thanks. You should include friends, colleagues, teachers, or even strangers who have helped you. Although these people are not family, they are just as important as family in that they have helped shape who you are and have been supportive. In that regard, they deserve the same amount of respect, or more, than some "family" members who have tried to hold you back.
Lastly, please feel free to e-mail me again if you ever need a kind word, support, or encouragement. Helping people like you who understand the big picture of how we need to make progress as a community and are willing to work hard to change existing paradigms in either minority or majority communities is very important to me. True progress for all will be made if you keep up your energies and continue believing in what you know to be true. Don't let those around you who do not understand your purpose stop you from finding the happiness and freedom that you are entitled to in life and in your career.