The Perils of a White Academy: Why Grad School Needs Better Representation

By Mawia Khogali – As a doctoral candidate in psychology and law, I have had the opportunity to experience the role of both student and professor. My position as a woman of color has interacted with those two roles very differently, but the lesson I have learned has been the same: there is a vital need for more students and faculty of color in academia.

I recently read an article by Ciarra Jones titled “Grad School Is Trash for Students of Color and We Should Talk About That” (a good and quick read). Jones writes that graduate school can often be isolating for students of color, and I was struck by how much her article described my own experience. For instance, as the only Black student in my program, I have found myself in a position where I have needed to defend the humanity of Black people, an experience Jones critically captures in her piece.

Let’s start with my experiences as a graduate student. According to College Factual, about 48% of John Jay College’s undergraduate body is comprised of Hispanic students while about 17% is comprised of Black students, putting the school ahead of the game in terms of representation in comparison to the national average. However, the higher up you go, the more those numbers start to dwindle, and by the time you get to a doctoral program such as the one I am in, you are lucky if you even see one student of color.

I am the only Black student in my entire doctoral program, and we just hired our first Black faculty member about a year and a half ago. Before that, there were none. During my three years of coursework, the lack of diversity felt panoramic. I felt uncomfortable and unsupported bringing up issues of race in class discussions. This was particularly problematic because I study the criminal justice system, a topic that goes hand-in-hand with racial injustice.

At the same time, I quickly learned that my worldview and knowledge made me a valuable asset to my program. As a person of color, I was able to present insights that seemed obvious to me but were not so intuitive for others in my program. For example, I often critiqued class readings for neglecting to consider important factors such as race and socioeconomic status in the study of the justice system. Unfortunately, the points I raised would awkwardly hang in the air, lightly acknowledged by professors at best, and directly challenged at worst. Fellow classmates would either change the topic completely, or make comments that displayed a concerning level of ignorance about the issues I would bring up. The lack of diversity in the classroom clearly impacted the exchange of ideas and our ability to develop academically.

There were a few courses I took that were different. The majority of them were taught by professors of color, with one or two exceptions. In those classes, I was challenged more—I was able to grow because my professors pushed back on the points I brought up, not because they did not see the value in my ideas, but because they knew I could go deeper. I developed a strong relationship with one professor in particular—Dr. Delores Jones-Brown—who taught me the power of not being afraid to critique the academy and the work it produces. It was empowering to see such an amazing woman—a Black woman—doing the work that needs to be done to further the agenda of social justice.  It renewed my faith in my decision to stay in the academy.

Mawia Khogali (right) with Dr. Jones-Brown (second left).

But my experience in graduate school hasn’t only been from the perspective of a student—I have also taken on the role of the teacher. In some of the more diverse classrooms I teach in, words cannot capture the look of happiness that comes across my students’ faces when I bring up issues that may otherwise go undiscussed. My undergraduate students have taught me that my presence in the classroom helps students of color see that it is possible for people of color to move up in the academy. The ability to communicate that piece of knowledge has not only been rewarding, but another major reason for my desire to stay in the academy upon receiving my doctorate.

Beyond the anecdotal evidence from my own experiences as well as those of my colleagues of color, research also shows there are clear advantages to increasing the amount of representation in the academy. Faculty of color interact more with their students and utilize more teaching approaches than White faculty do, which indicates that all students, including White students, benefit from having a diverse faculty.

It’s time to rethink the ways in which students and faculty of color are recruited and retained in graduate programs like the Psychology and Law program at CUNY, and for graduate programs nationwide. That the grad school experience can be so isolating for students of color that some refer to it as “trash” should deeply concern us. As students and educators, we deserve better than that.

Mawia Khogali is a PhD student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York/John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

1 Comment on "The Perils of a White Academy: Why Grad School Needs Better Representation"

  1. Angela Silletti | February 13, 2018 at 11:39 pm | Reply

    Great insight, all institutions (especially ours) need to make an effort to recruit more African Americans into Doctoral Programs. The white students (including myself) notice the lack of diversity too.

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