In Spring of 2019, I met with an instructional researcher who asked me what I loved about science. I explained my deep love of molecules, electrostatic forces, bond angles and other things mostly chemists care about. The funny thing is, a year before this I wouldn’t have even mentioned chemistry.

I’m not a traditional student. Growing up with two serious chronic illnesses and a couple of learning disabilities made school really difficult for me. I’ve only recently figured out how to gracefully coexist on the line that separates my identity as a person with disabilities and my identity as a student who loves learning. This change was based on a single conversation I had with a chemistry instructor who, like me, has a learning disability.

Hearing that my instructor, an accomplished chemist with a Ph.D., understood my experience changed how I saw myself. The voices in my head telling me my goals were out of reach went quiet. His compassion and empathy, driven by his lived experience, taught me about the importance of equitable representation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

For this fifth year of The Seattle Times Student Voices project, we invited students from Washington public high schools and colleges to work with Education Lab to write about issues of educational equity. This essay by Sarah Fenton is the eighth in the 2021 series. Visit http://st.news/studentvoices2021 to learn more about the student writers and read other essays in this series as they are published.

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But representation is sorely lacking in STEM. A new Pew Research Center study found uneven progress in increasing gender, racial and ethnic diversity in the STEM workforce. The data on the representation of LGBTQ+ and neurodivergent people in STEM fields is scarce. 

A 2019 study by the American Council on Education, Race, and Ethnicity in Higher Education points out that while student populations continue to diversify, faculty populations have not. I can’t hope to be an impactful scientist in the future if my teams are predominantly composed of people who look like me, a white female.

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Another 2019 study, published by the University of Texas, found that although Black and Latinx students are entering STEM post-secondary programs at the same rate as white students, they tend to exit those programs at much higher rates than any other program field. This needs to be addressed by higher education institutions, including mine, immediately. We should acknowledge that equal access doesn’t mean equitable access. Policies, resources and services should be defined and dispersed with that in mind. Otherwise, not only will STEM programs continue to fail their students, STEM workplaces will continue to be dominated by individuals who aren’t prepared to challenge the status quo. 

Increasing equitable representation is perhaps my generation’s most pressing and complex challenge and this is especially true in education. We need staff, faculty and administrators in higher education whose lived experiences aren’t centered exclusively in the white male perspective. In STEM we need representation from physically disabled scholars, from neurodivergent scholars, from LGBTQ+ scholars, from BIPOC scholars and from others who have historically been excluded from these fields. 

My school, North Seattle College, has done a phenomenal job in defining equity, diversity and inclusion as a campus-wide, community-oriented priority. But despite our shared efforts, the number of BIPOC faculty members in the math and sciences division is abysmal. As a student who benefited from having a faculty member who also has a disability, I can’t overemphasize the need for equitable hiring and recruitment when it comes to STEM programs. 

I am frustrated that I can count the number of BIPOC faculty members I’ve had on one hand in the past three years. I know my education will not be well rounded if the makeup and diversity of my instructors is also not well rounded. My frustration is a drop in the bucket compared to the complex experience some of my BIPOC classmates have described to me. 

Rosa Peralta, a trustee for the Seattle Colleges District and senior program officer at the Satterberg Foundation, has faced obstacles as a Latina student throughout her education. 

“When I first got to college, I didn’t know how to study,” she said. Neither of her parents passed a second-grade level of education, and they were unable to prepare her for this. Peralta’s experience at Whitmore College was vastly different from her classmates’, who predominantly came from wealthy white families. 

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It wasn’t until Peralta was doing graduate level work that she had a class taught by a faculty member who identified as Latina. “When I finally had access to a mentor that knew where I was coming from, I excelled,” she said. 

For Peralta, the connection between representation in education and student success is clear. “Education is paramount,” she said. “If you don’t have people of color that serve as professors and teachers and mentors, students will fail.” 

Solving this representation problem isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon that hinges as much on retention as it does on hiring. Peralta believes retaining staff of color must be prioritized across the nation, and that committing to competitive pay and benefits for faculty and staff of color and from other underrepresented identities is one high-impact solution. 

When we don’t have equitable representation on our teams and in our leadership, the problems we hope to explore, describe, and solve will be mismanaged every single time. Scientific outcomes are as much impacted by the experiences we bring to the table, as by the things we learn while seated there. What shapes us outside the lab brings context and consequence to our work. 

When I think about the biggest problems that scientists grapple with today, almost all of them disproportionately impact people within BIPOC communities, individuals with disabilities, people in the LGBTQ+ communities, and individuals who live below the poverty line. If we don’t have members of these communities at the table, in leadership, in teaching roles and in front line work, we will have failed as scientists.