Black and African American students make up five percent of the undergraduate population and four percent of graduate students at UC Santa Barbara, according to the 2018-2019 Campus Profile from UCSB’s Office of Budget and Planning.
Compared to other racial groups, Black college students have the highest dropout rate at two-year and four-year colleges, the U.S. Department of Education states.
Furthermore, African Americans represent just seven percent of S.T.E.M. majors in college, a report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce finds. They tend to be underrepresented in college majors associated with the highest-paying, fastest-growing occupations, including S.T.E.M., business and health.
Several UCSB faculty members and graduate students in social sciences and humanities shared their thoughts on the disproportionate representation for Black students not just in S.T.E.M. but in higher education in general, as well as how they perceive their identity affects their academic and professional experiences at UCSB.
(Note: Interviewees in direct S.T.E.M. weren’t included, but not for a lack of trying to find potential faculty and graduate students to interview.)
Disclaimer: The following people’s thoughts do not encompass the views of every Black or African American person at UCSB.
Evelyne Laurent-Perrault, Assistant Professor in the Department of History
“It’s always been uphill. Because first, I’m a woman, and I’m a Black woman. I’ve always felt that I can be doing everything I want to, but for some, it’s been a surprise. When I enter a new space and I have to present myself, me being a Black woman, it brings surprises still. It does not always mean a person did not expect it in a negative way [that I’m a professor] and so sometimes it’s a pleasant surprise. But it’s because it’s from a lack of [Black female professors],” Evelyne Laurent-Perrault, an assistant professor in the Department of History, who identifies as Afro-Latin American, said.
As for what she thinks could improve the ethnic disparity in majors leading to higher-paying jobs, Laurent-Perrault believes “a proactive effort by institutions, by the professors [and] by the deans” is necessary.
“For all of us, it is mostly an act of self-reflection and conscientiously self-checking in how we perceive and don’t perceive the capabilities of others. It has to be an effort of reaching out and understanding that we are all at different parts of the journey in understanding, accepting and supporting. Professors need to be aware of that, and especially in S.T.E.M.,” she said.
For Laurent-Perrault, it’s about “improving and addressing the tools students were given to navigate higher education and opportunities to do things that they might not have had [otherwise or previously].”
It’s about “applying that conscientiousness and self-reflection,” such as by perhaps having a professor encourage first-generation students who may not have had a smooth journey with certain types of expectations and pressures bestowed upon them.
“It has to be a concerted effort that is respectful to the student and the parents of the student and at the same time provides tools,” she summarized.
Laurent-Perrault stresses “the comfort and well-being and social experience of people of African descent” as well. Having an administration or faculty representative of the student population can be a driving factor in attracting more underrepresented students, and indeed, numerous studies indicate that having race-congruent teachers have significant positive effects, including leading to higher performance levels by students.
“Not so much because you need to have people who look like you, but because you need to have people who carry culture like you so that the social experience is also rewarding,” Laurent-Perrault explained.
But beyond the present issues, she points to how adequate representation in history plays an imperative role in informing not only the past but also the present and possible future.
“We need to look into the history of who was excluded from what. When you look at the rate of invention and the number of African Americans who have participated in the invention of things like the locomotive engine or the refrigerator, many of the things that we take for granted today have had contributions from African American inventors, and in times when it was even harder to have access [to those fields]. So [part of it] is demystifying the myth of S.T.E.M. always being this overwhelming white thing.”
David Stamps, fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication
“We’re grossly underrepresented in a lot of spaces, and that is due to a lot of factors, some intentional and some unintentional. My thoughts are that it’s time to correct course. It’s time to make space and create resources so that this can be addressed appropriately. It’s time to find co-conspirators and allies that see the value in creating equity and inclusion,” David Stamps, a Ph.D. candidate in UCSB’s Department of Communication who identifies as African American, said.
“I specifically look for ways to empower individuals who look like me that are constantly reminded that they don’t belong simply because they don’t see themselves resembled in those spaces, that they do belong and they have things that are very valuable to add, and that who they are is more than enough.”
“That’s why I pursue this career. I want people who look like me to see themselves in classrooms. I want people who look like me to see themselves in scholarship and being represented appropriately. I think that the power is shifting. The more agency that people of color have, the more push we can have to not only survive but thrive,” Stamps said.
Stamps is currently the only Black male Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication, with nearly 30 years having passed since the last.
“My racial identity is at the forefront of everything I do because [what I’m doing] has [almost] never existed before. So what’s considered normal and what’s considered generalizable doesn’t even apply to me. Everything I do, there is this heightened awareness because I am bringing my Blackness in because people have never experienced this. And so there’s all these stereotypes and stigmas I have to push back against. And I welcome it because the only way things are ever going to change is if people have to confront it and they’re thoroughly engaged,” he said.
“When I say I want a seat at the table, I’m not asking anyone to give up theirs. I am telling people to move over. There is more than enough space for diverse flavors and diverse identities and diverse schools of thought to all co-exist,” Stamps continued.
“I live a very unapologetic life. And so I think when people live unapologetically and embrace their identity, they shouldn’t have to assimilate or acculturate their identity to make other people see the value in them.”
Stamps underscores why having Black history portrayed accurately is vital to understanding and accepting this.
“Black history is about celebrating people who fought for civil rights and people who were trailblazers and people who were in active resistance and for people who fought for agency. It’s not just about what’s palatable for majority group members and not Blacks. And oftentimes, that’s what Black History Month is. It’s Dr. Martin Luther King and it’s Rosa Parks. Sometimes it should be Marcus Garvey and Nat Turner and different individuals that didn’t necessarily want to play nice when it came to Black liberation and Black freedom. That’s also Black history, and it’s a rich history that non-Black people should engage in and understand. We didn’t get here just by non-violent resistance alone, and that narrative can misinform an individual. So I would want to lay claim to what Black history really is — that spectrum of Black identity, the spectrum of blackness — and not just those that are palatable to individuals.”
Raymok Ketema, first-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History
“My Blackness has shaped my experience here at UCSB … completely in totality,” Raymok Ketema, a Ph.D. student in the Department of History who identifies as African American, said.
She, too, points out the potentially detrimental effects from history shining the spotlight on some Black historical figures while missing others.
“Something that could be interesting or is important for us to consider is who has been placed in the forefront as the historical Black figures and why are they in those positions? Who are other people doing similar work and why did they not get the same attention?” she asked.
For example, Ketema looks to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as someone she wishes had better representation in history.
“I think that [Madikizela-Mandela] is a powerful figure that gets obscured in our history a lot, that gets painted as a villainous figure, especially when you think of her compared to how Nelson Mandela has been represented. I think that she’s a good person to look at in Black history and somebody that I admire deeply.”
Her perception of a lack of diversity and of Black student representation on campus is what motivates her to pursue higher education.
“The best way to correct this would be to actually incorporate African history into our curriculums. Then we wouldn’t just need to dedicate a month to Black history. These gaps in our knowledge systems need to be filled, and so that has really motivated my desires to get a Ph.D. so hopefully one day I will be able to teach and fill in some of these gaps and holes that have been present for so long,” she said.
Relatedly, re-incorporating the “marginalized from science” would help make S.T.E.M. “a lot more attainable and accessible to students of color,” Ketema added.
She also emphasizes the necessity of holistic knowledge and placing less significance on classifying what fits into S.T.E.M. versus humanities versus social sciences. Rather, she said, breaking down these categories to prevent pigeonholing would also help with fixing the curriculums in schools.
Sharon Tettegah, Director of the Center for Black Studies Research and Professor in the Department of Black Studies
“I am proud of who I am as a Black woman, or an African American woman. I’ve worked very hard and I think that I wear being an African American or a Black American as a badge of honor in some ways, so it’s really important that individuals understand that my identity is most salient around being an African American woman, or a Black woman,” Sharon Tettegah, the director of the Center for Black Studies Research and a professor in the Department of Black Studies, said.
“Being at the intersection [of S.T.E.M. and social sciences], knowing there’s a Center for Black Studies Research and having the ability to shape the narrative behind S.T.E.M. and social sciences as well as humanities are what has shaped my experiences [at UCSB].”
“Having this opportunity to be the director, I’m able to bring in undergraduate students and expose them to research in computational science, data science and help them understand that data science is not just for people in sciences and engineering or technology and mathematics, but it’s also for individuals in social sciences and humanities as a science,” she continued.
As for what could help get more students of color into S.T.E.M. and social sciences, Tettegah believes providing exposure to these academic areas is key.
“I think it’s really important to expose students to things that they may not have been exposed to, especially underrepresented groups. Because a lot of times with Black and Brown students they don’t get the same exposure to S.T.E.M. at all. It’s not that sometimes they might not be interested — they might not know about it.”
Additionally, establishing a support mechanism early on is crucial, according to Tettegah. If a mentor can guide a student through navigating a potential interest in S.T.E.M., it helps them to see it from the “human experience” rather than a “mechanical” one, she said. It may help the student see beyond the hard data or facts of the field to identify the human aspects, recognizing the people behind the work to produce those data.
It would be great if students end up finding an interest, but they need to have that initial exposure to it first, Tettegah continued.
In the spirit of Black History Month, but also as a celebration of Black influencers in general who may not have gotten their proper due in history, Tettegah highlights the HistoryMakers project.
Created by Julieanna Richardson, the HistoryMakers website features the nation’s largest African American video oral history collection. With over 3,000 interviews with well-known and unsung Black influencers in all backgrounds and fields, ranging from business to medical to religion and media, the expansive archive seeks to provide a more inclusive historical record of African Americans’ contributions in the United States and internationally.
Check it out at thehistorymakers.org.