Retaining Culture, Studying Chemistry

Drucilla Williams

If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would be where I am today, I would have not believed that person. Attending a university in the United States and earning a bachelor’s degree was already a very big accomplishment in the eyes of my peers and family, so sharing the news that I wanted to attend graduate school brought about a lot of mixed emotions. Some felt that I was aiming too high; others felt that I made a great decision. However, very early on in my undergraduate studies, I had already decided to attend graduate school. I knew I wanted to further my education in the science field in some capacity. Of all the possible areas of concentration, I grew to love organic chemistry the most and became very interested in doing research with a specific focus in the pharmaceutical sciences.

Once here, I realized very quickly that there was a big difference between my undergraduate and graduate studies. Now I am expected to be in control of my work and its outcome, to be able to come up with new and innovative ideas for research, and to be a more independent thinker overall. Graduate school requires us all to be better at time management and to create a working balance between research and classwork.

Because of these differences, upon coming into my Ph.D. program, in common with many graduate students, I fell victim to imposter syndrome. I experienced many doubts about myself and my capabilities, and I felt like I didn’t know quite as much as my peers. When working in the lab alongside them, to avoid the risk of sounding less intelligent, I would do extensive research about an unfamiliar procedure rather than ask my peers more about it. Similarly, when intellectual discussions turned to a topic that was new to me, rather than letting my unfamiliarity with it be known, I would nod as though I understood and then do my own research later to learn more about the subject. Fortunately, I realized very early on that I was not the only one in this position, and I came to accept that graduate school was a learning experience for me and I was not expected to know everything.

Upon coming to the United States as an undergraduate, I realized very quickly that my race was highly underrepresented in the science field. The further I went in my studies, the less I saw people of color. In graduate school, this fact became even more apparent; I felt like a needle in a haystack. In many instances, I would be the only person of color in a room full of people, whether it be a classroom, seminar, or large conference. Inevitably, I wondered whether this caused me to be less or more recognizable, but in either case it increased my self-doubt. In many instances, I felt a strong need to fit in, not only because I was black, but also because I was from a different cultural background. I was Afro-Caribbean, not African-American. As such, I carried patterns of behavior that were specific to my being Jamaican. I had to make several cultural adjustments. For example, in my culture when in classrooms or discussions with persons of authority such as a professor, as a form of respect, you are expected to remain silent when they speak and keep your opinions to yourself. I found it to be a major adjustment in graduate school when I was expected to be more vocal and give my opinion on matters even if I disagreed. When prompted to speak, I paid very close attention to how I pronounced my words, trying my best not to sound less intelligent than my peers. In more relaxed settings, it would sometimes be difficult to communicate my thoughts with words outside of my native language. Therefore, being a black female put an unseen pressure on me to work twice as hard as others to stand out and to surpass the barriers that prevent students like me from being represented in the science field.

Regardless of my self-doubts, I have never felt excluded from my peers in relation to academics; I am still asked to engage in intellectual discussions, pitch research ideas, and partake in group studies even though it is known that I am coming from a different cultural background. However, being a student isn’t my only identity; as a result, it is inevitable for me to not feel secluded amongst my peers in other aspects of my life. I take great pride in my culture; I try my best to maintain my cultural autonomy and recognize that my differences are what will make my research ideas unique and my progress in the graduate program different from that of others.