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Diversity and inclusion

Diversity and inclusion

Measures of success: how to thrive as a student in physics

26 Oct 2020

This article is the second in a series of essays written by Black physicists and co-published with Physics Today as part of #BlackInPhysics week, an event dedicated to celebrating Black physicists and their contributions to the scientific community, and to revealing a more complete picture of what a physicist looks like.

Tamia Williams
Path to success: Physicist and artist Tamia Williams found that community and hard work were key factors to a successful start in physics. (Courtesy: Jordan Newell)

For a long time, I used to think success in physics mainly meant winning accolades, getting institutional recognition, and having an ingenious understanding of the subject. And to some degree, these factors do qualify for what it means to be a successful physics student.  I was the first person in my family to pursue a degree in physics, and in time I realized that my measures of success as a student were completely different from what I expected. I found that being a successful student actually requires a strong foundational work ethic, persistent determination and communal support.

As the only daughter of two immigrant parents, and growing up in a typical Caribbean household, success was the only option. My grades were always expected to be 95% or above. The terms “I don’t know” and “I can’t” never existed in my vocabulary, and if I chose to embark on a new task, I was expected to finish it. My parents are the embodiment of hard work, dedication and a strong work ethic, as they left their native countries to have a better life for themselves in the US. Their resilience inspired me to be as hard-working, which was an essential factor in my success as a student. My parents knew my potential to attain the impossible, because they had done the impossible themselves.

When I decided to pursue physics as one of my majors at Mount Holyoke College, although my parents were unfamiliar with the subject, they were completely supportive of my decision. They became my emotional support in the mornings when I had to get up early to attend classes; provided a listening ear at night when I felt hopeless and lost about taking courses out of my league, such as electromagnetic theory or quantum mechanics; and were my biggest fans when I graduated from college magna cum laude.  I was a successful student because of them – their unconditional support, love and work ethic led me to graduate with high honours in physics; write a senior thesis; and advocate for resources that were conducive to my well-being as a Black woman in physics.

Physics’ academic culture does not mirror the multifaceted identities of its Black students

If physics has taught me anything, it’s determination. I learned from early on that it is not an easy subject. For many Black students, when we first begin studying physics, we are often reminded that we are seeing and learning this material for the first time. We recognize and know that the culture, vernacular and coursework of physics disregard the vocabulary and syntax used throughout the Black community. Physics’ academic culture does not mirror the multifaceted identities of its Black students – rather, it exists in a world where Black students often do not have access to learning or becoming familiar with the material at a young age. Therefore, it usually takes us twice as long and requires twice the effort to complete assignments or gain a basic understanding of the subject.

When I find myself in these situations, struggling to keep up, I remind myself of the reasons I fell in love with physics: attending the free science museum days and learning about the solar system, or riding the subway system in New York and wondering how the trains worked. The curiosity I held as a child influenced my success as a student. While I never noticed that I was often the only Black girl running around the science exhibits, I remember how tenacious I felt doing physics and how determined I was to find the answers to every scientific question that I asked. As a student, I made sure to hold on to those same skill sets that I had developed as a child, which included having a natural inclination to wonder about the world and a genuine interest in scientific investigation.

However, the real secret to my success as a student is my community. That includes friends and other Black physicists who I have collaborated with and learned from along the way. Their support allowed me to see how I was impacting my community in real time. Towards the end of my undergraduate experience was the first time I felt I had finally found my place as a physics student and understood what it truly felt like to succeed. For much of my undergraduate experience and a short period during graduate school, I found myself isolated and doing physics alone. This situation was unfamiliar to me, as my earlier educational experience consisted of constant collaboration. When I began working with mentors from my community, who looked like me and were doing research that reflected who I was as a student, I realized how that increased my self-efficacy.

Collaborating with other Black students validated my existence in the field and made my experience more meaningful. As a result, my own research focused on the intersection of identity and performing arts of Black physicists. My collaborators and I collected and analysed the physics experiences of 13 Black physicists, and found themes in the ways that their participation in the performing arts supported their experiences in the field as Black physicists (ComPADRE PERC2018 Williams). For so long, I was under the perception that I would be the only Black student I knew pursuing a degree in physics. My research allowed me to find and connect with my community, which became crucial for my identity as a student.

In academia, our success is rooted in our passion for physics, our family and the community that supports us. We succeed regardless of how difficult or challenging the work may be. The more I learn, the more I realize there is no guide or beginner’s manual on how to be a successful student; the only real success is what you determine it to be.

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