Five Ways I Navigated Grad School as a Minority
During Fall 2011, I moved from Puerto Rico, where I was born and raised, to New York City, for grad school. It was the first time I lived so far from my family and the world I knew. My undergraduate experience at the University of Puerto Rico was relatively homogenous. However, that quickly changed when I started graduate school, as I was often the only underrepresented minority in the room.
All of these changes hit at once, and I struggled to manage the stress of graduate school and the feeling of being an imposter. As I look back on that time, here’s what helped me connect with my peers and find success academically.
1. Focus on what unites you with your peers, not what separates you.
My graduate school peers were mostly white. There were times when I focused only on our differences. I would think about how different our families were, and at times I was convinced they’d had more opportunities than me growing up.
Eventually, I realized focusing on how different our lives had been up to that point only made me feel isolated. But when I concentrated on our shared experiences, I didn’t feel alone.
We were all curious, unafraid to work hard, and mesmerized by the brain. We were all new to New York City and somewhat afraid of the challenges we would face in grad school. When I recognized we had similar goals, fears, and hopes — and that we were all learning to navigate the City and grad school together — I felt like I was part of a family. This sense of community was important for me to survive grad school.
2. Share your unique point of view.
Our opinions are often influenced by our upbringing and environment. If you come from a non-traditional background compared to your peers, you’ll likely have different perspectives on politics, global events, culture, art, and more.
Creating spaces for sharing different views helps you and your peers better understand and support each other. For example, I had conversations about how growing up in Puerto Rico as an American citizen with no voting rights and representation affected me. I also took grad school friends to Latino restaurants and cultural events to share my background and experience with them.
Overall, speaking up about my perspective, even if it was different, made me feel more connected.
3. Give respectful feedback to help each other be more inclusive.
Since I spoke Spanish most of my life, I started graduate school with a strong accent. Some of my friends found it endearing but would sometimes imitate me or laugh if what I said sounded funny to them. I would laugh along to hide my embarrassment, but in actuality, I felt uncomfortable.
Looking back, I wish I had respectfully asked them to stop. Those moments were the perfect opportunity to grow together through an uncomfortable but necessary conversation.
It's important to remember in a highly diverse environment that feedback can be given and received. My peers also taught me a lot about their backgrounds and cultures, especially my Jewish, Midwestern, and European peers. This knowledge helped me be careful and more inclusive with my words.
4. Find cultural, scientific, and peer mentors.
In my experience, having mentors who shared my cultural background was helpful since they better understood some of my challenges. If you’re in a large institution, there are also likely international student groups offering a community that fits you.
If you can’t find scientific mentors who share your cultural or ethnic background, SfN’s annual meeting is a great place to look. During grad school, I attended the diversity poster session to expand my network. I emailed people after the meeting to talk on the phone or grab coffee. Don’t be afraid to send emails saying you want to learn about their career path. Often those conversations turn into helpful discussions about overcoming struggles and challenges.
Additionally, don’t underestimate the value of peer mentoring. My grad school friends and I gathered once a month to drink tea and chat about our lab struggles. We called it “tea time,” and it was extremely relaxing and useful.
At some point in grad school, I became tired of hearing the same advice to find mentors, but they’re necessary. They don’t need to be senior faculty. Mentors can be peers, older graduate students, or postdocs. The bottom line: Find many.
5. Ask for help.
Don’t wait until you are deeply struggling to seek help. This applies to your research, classes, interpersonal issues in the lab, or mental health. Early in graduate school, I was shy about asking to meet with my thesis mentor. I thought I should know how to solve what I struggled with and that I needed to figure everything out myself. A mentor helped me realize it was my responsibility to identify my needs, and that it was okay to then ask my adviser or colleagues for help.
Overall, it helped me to find common ground, speak up about my experience, seek out diverse mentors, and ask for help during my academic training. My main takeaway, though, is to learn to be aware of your unique needs and communicate them respectfully.