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Invisibilized Hypervisibility: Black STEM Doctoral Students, HBCUs, and Mentoring

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

Centering Black Experiences in STEM: Equity, Culture & Social Justice in Education Division Technical Session 4

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Paper Authors


Lisa Merriweather University of North Carolina at Charlotte

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Lisa Merriweather is a Professor of Adult Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte with a PHD in adult education from the University of Georgia, co-founder and co-editor of Dialogues in Social Justice: An Adult Education Journal, and aspiring writer of historical science fiction centering issues of race and racism. Employing the art of story and dialogic engagement, complete with creativity and innovativeness, emotionality and theorizing, and historical and contemporary cultural and political critique informed by Africana Philosophy and Critical Race Theory, Lisa invites readers and interlocutors to a space of reflection through (re)presenting and (re)languaging racialized experiences. Her research interests include culturally liberative mentoring, critical race pedagogy, STEM doctoral mentoring, and race and racism in non/informal adult education.

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Marah Lambert University of North Carolina at Charlotte

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Marah Lambert just completed her first year in UNC Charlotte's Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation Ph.D. program. She is working as a graduate research assistant part-time. She recently earned her Master's in Research Methods in Education from the University of Kentucky. She taught middle school math for 5 years in the Anchorage School District after receiving her B.A. in Mathematics from Queens University of Charlotte.

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Shaunelle Casey

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Cathy Howell University of North Carolina at Charlotte

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Niesha Douglas

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Keywords: Black STEM doctoral students, Mentoring, Culturally liberative mentoring, Anti-black racism, STEM doctoral programs, anti-Black racism

Background: Even though Historically Black College and Universities (HBCUs) make up only 3% of higher education's institutions, they play a pivotal role in producing Black scientists by virtue of the fact that many received either their undergraduate or doctorate degree from a HBCU. HBCUs are credited with providing a more supportive and nurturing environment that thrives on communal mindsets and practices, emphasizing the importance of relationships, offering opportunities for Black students to "see themselves" as part of the academic and social milieu whereas Historically White Institutions (HWIS) are characterized as being hostile and discriminatory.

Mentoring is said to be pivotal in the attainment of the PhD. Mentorships have an inherent gatekeeping mechanism, better positioning those who receive effective mentorships while disadvantaging those who do not. It has potential to harm and marginalize when not engaged with deliberate care and a culturally liberative mindset. Mentoring, when not under the thumb of colonizing mindsets, can contribute to more equitable experiences and outcomes for students who hail from AGEP population groups. Literature has indicated that Black students are less likely to have a mentor or be engaged in effective mentorships.

The HBCU narrative of supportive environment is consistently told but has scant empirical validation for Black students pursuing STEM doctoral degrees. In fact, the lure of having faculty and peers who look like you is something of an enigma given that even at HBCUs there are limited numbers of Black faculty in STEM. How are same race, same gender mentorships attained when, not unlike their HWIS counterparts, HBCU STEM faculties have a large number of White and Asian men? If the environment is indeed different at HBCUs, is it different for Black STEM doctoral students? Is STEM doctoral mentoring at HBCUs emblematic of anti-Blackness or is it yet another tool used to oppress marginalized students?

Theoretical Framework: Anti-black racism and critical capital theory serve as critical theoretical frameworks and were selected because they highlight the ways violence is enacted through taken for granted colonized practices such as mentoring. Fanon understood that thoughts and mindsets are the progenitors of violence and dehumanization is the process through which violence is enacted. Anti-black racism and critical capital theory can be useful in unearthing the structural inequalities that uphold the current system in place for STEM doctoral learning.

Research Design: An embedded multiple qualitative case study research project sought to understand the nature and quality of STEM doctoral mentorships at an HBCU. The analysis on the HBCU subcase asked, how are STEM doctoral mentorships understood by Black STEM doctoral students at HBCUs? Black STEM HBCU students were interviewed and completed a mentoring competency assessment survey. In addition STEM doctoral students from three universities also completed the survey. The qualitative data was analyzed using narrative analysis and the survey data was analyzed using descriptive and inferential statistics. This project is part of a larger NSF AGEP sponsored research study.

Research findings: The findings from this study expose that Black STEM doctoral students at HBCUs have not reached the proverbial Promise Land. In spite of being in a space that is more diverse, they manage to simultaneously be invisible and hypervisible. An unmerited sense of assumed cultural belonging was highlighted with students reporting a lack of selfethnic reflectors in their programs. In many ways the systemic and institutional structures on HBCUs with respect to STEM doctoral programming mirrored the colonial structures more often associated with HWIS. Their culture and cultural-based experiences as domestic students as well as their academic strengths were often not recognized by mentors while that of international students were. Three themes were supported by the data: Conspicuous Absence, Race Still Matters, and Invisibilized Hypervisibility.

Implications: Better understanding how STEM doctoral mentoring is facilitated at HBCUs holds the promise of informing a mentoring practice that supports cultural liberation instead of cultural degradation and suppression. It becomes one avenue as the “The Call'' suggests to "confront our own complicity in the colonial enterprise" by holding STEM doctoral mentors and the institutions they represent accountable for socially just mentoring practices. Greater intentionality as well as mandated training informed by the study's results are recommended. HBCU faculty doctoral mentors are challenged to be scholar activists who engage mentoring from an advocacy and accomplice framework. The development of STEM scholar activists is the aspiration of more culturally liberative STEM doctoral mentorships. Black students need mentors who are willing and equipped to be advocates and accomplices in their success.

Merriweather, L., & Lambert, M., & Casey, S., & Howell, C., & Douglas, N. (2022, August), Invisibilized Hypervisibility: Black STEM Doctoral Students, HBCUs, and Mentoring Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN.

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