This section of the Rostrum is dedicated to publishing the personal stories and perspectives of individual faculty members from community colleges around the state. The statements and stories included in this section come directly from the writers and may not reflect the positions or views of the ASCCC. Although these selections must meet the ASCCC’s publication standards, they will be edited less than other Rostrum articles in order to more fully preserve the writers’ voices.
Michael’s Experience: The Only Black Man in the Office
I have worked in the IT industry for over 35 years. During my tenure, I have noticed the lack of diversity in the industry. For many years, I have been the only black male in the office. I can remember being ridiculed by my colleagues as they questioned my credentials and abilities. There were several times I was overlooked when it came to promotion time. Of course, this made me angry, but it also made me want to strive to be better than the person next to me.
After proving my capability and competence multiple times, I gained more confidence in my abilities to work in a biased environment. I began to develop a skill set that would continuously benefit me throughout my career. I learned that, as a person of color, I had to work twice as hard to prove myself to others. This knowledge drove me to success in the private sector.
I knew I had to do something for those attempting to navigate their way through the system. Teaching was always a passion of mine, and I could think of no better way to help others achieve their dreams of being in the IT world. I have been teaching in higher education for little over a decade, and I have witnessed the lack of color in the classroom firsthand. After a couple of semesters with one student of color and no female-identified students in my class, I began recruiting students to help change the demographic in my classroom. I realized the importance of my presence on campus as a role model. If I could show my students that people of color can be successful in IT, maybe they could picture themselves in a similar role.
As I began to change the landscape of my classrooms, I emphasized that no matter what color the students were, they could succeed. My go-to saying is “everyone arrives at the dance at different times; our goal is to make sure everyone is there for the last dance.” As I told my students this, I began to realize that it took a lot of pressure off students of color who were new to IT. I held every student to the same standard and offered other services to help those who were new and inexperienced with technology. My students began to flourish and gain confidence. Students began to encourage each other and work together. By maintaining high expectations of students, placing students in balanced cohorts, and creating a team environment, I was able to create a positive vibe in the classroom.
Elizabeth’s Experience: The Only Woman in the Lecture Hall
As a former California community college student, I was the only woman in the lecture hall for the most challenging technical courses that I took. In lower-level courses, there were few women and few people of color. As an undergraduate, I joined a newly-formed college team that entered cybersecurity competitions. I was the only woman on the team. We advanced to the national competition both years that I was a member. The first year, out of sixty competitors, a student from Cal Poly and I were the only two women at nationals. The teams included fewer than five students of color. The second year, there were three of us at nationals: two students from Stanford and me. None of the teams had female coaches.
Despite the notion that community colleges are intended to promote equity in education for all, I witnessed and experienced a wide spectrum of harassment, hostility, and aggression directed towards minoritized students who were striving toward technical careers on countless occasions. Both fellow students and educators contributed to the creation of a hostile environment that was not conducive to supporting these students’ efforts to learn and grow.
In many ways, my professional experience mirrored my experience as a college student. Over the course of my career in the tech industry, I began to notice a pattern: I was almost always the only woman on the team. In multiple organizations, engineers who did not present as straight, white, or Asian males faced presumptions of incompetence, challenges in establishing credibility, exploitation, continual microaggressions, degradation, hiring bias, harassment, and worse. People who did not “look like an engineer” were forced to go above and beyond to prove themselves repeatedly. Despite laws intended to protect against them, discriminatory employment practices still prevailed. At this point, I realized that the striking similarity between these academic and professional experiences helped to explain the ongoing lack of diversity in the tech industry. If we wanted to improve diversity in tech, we needed to educate and encourage a diverse population of students to fulfill technical roles.
During my first year of teaching at a community college, I became the head coach for the competition team that I had joined as a student. Our award-winning team had achieved gender parity and featured the first black female team captain while being led by the first female head coach. After only two semesters, departmental colleagues started remarking upon the dramatic increase in female enrollment in the intermediate and advanced technical courses that I taught. Students developed confidence as they developed technical skills and began to report that they were obtaining excellent jobs.
The Education to Industry Pipeline Is Broken
If the learning environment is hostile to underrepresented people of color and women in tech, the industry will continue to perpetuate the same hostile conditions that discourage students from diverse backgrounds, thus preserving the lack of diversity in the industry. The common argument has been that the lack of diversity in tech is due to a lack of qualified talent from diverse backgrounds. Colleges must ensure that curricula, programs, and classrooms are built and maintained in a way that will attract and retain minoritized students, which is fundamental to the creation and enrichment of a diverse employment pipeline.
How Can Faculty Support Positive Change?
Students arrive in college classrooms carrying a lot of trepidation and shame that has been bestowed on them by an academic system and society that judges them as inferior due to their race, gender, socioeconomic status, prior careers, or life circumstances. Students face endless challenges, including housing insecurity, abusive relationships, debilitating health conditions, racism, ageism, sexism, academic trauma, and countless people telling them that they cannot change their circumstances. Despite often believing that they are incapable of reaching their academic and professional goals, students enroll in technical courses with a desperate need to improve their situations so that they can support their families, often with the dream of ending multi-generational cycles of poverty. In order to achieve positive change for students, faculty must teach the subject matter in an extremely effective manner so that these students will be attractive candidates for employers. We coach them into believing that they can succeed and help them prepare to navigate the bias that they might face during the job search while implementing and enforcing a zero tolerance policy on academic harassment.
Critical Ingredients for Successful Vocational Education of Minoritized Students:
- A safe and welcoming learning environment
- Consistent meaningful feedback and encouragement
- Teaching focused on building robust technical and soft skill sets
- Educators who look like them or who share some similar past experiences
- Knowledgeable and experienced subject matter experts
- Supportive, empathetic educators who set high expectations
- Equitable classroom supports that position a student to succeed
- Coaching to set and achieve goals
- Opportunities to build community with fellow students and alumni
- Engagement with a diverse array of industry role models who can help students visualize themselves in future careers
How Academic Senate Leaders Can Support Positive Change:
- Promote the hiring of diverse educators and administrators
- Call out and intervene in situations that involve behavior such as tone policing
- Amplify the voice of students who come from diverse backgrounds
- Implement appropriate educational programs that will prepare students to be competitive on the job market
- Educate and support teachers in the creation of a safe learning environment
- Work with administrators to make sure students have the appropriate tools for success
Faculty must lead by example. Educators and administrators must hold themselves to high standards. Colleges must build effective vocational training programs that will attract and retain minoritized students. Local academic senates fulfill a fundamental role in achieving this goal by working with administration to create an inclusive environment where all are welcome and supported in their efforts to learn new skills. Faculty who have worked in industry or faced similar challenges to those encountered by students must have a significant stake in the creation of educational programs and student support services. Students share salient points about their backgrounds and the challenges they face with instructors and counselors, so faculty must advocate for that student voice and ensure that all students gain access to the appropriate supports that will best position them for success.