On Monday, Aug. 1, the Black Graduate and Professional Students Association (BGPSA) and the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosted “Navigating Graduate School as a Student of Color.” The event targeted current undergraduate students and community members interested in pursuing a master’s degree or a Ph.D.

The panel featured three graduate students from various disciplines that included Ashley Smith, Ph.D. candidate in Ed. Policy Studies; Dilibe Offiah, Ph.D. candidate in Construction Engineering and Management; and Sarah Bruno, Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Anthropology. Yanna Williams, master’s degree candidate in Dairy Science and the external vice president of the BGPSA, facilitated the panel.

The panelists shared invaluable advice about how to successfully apply to graduate programs. They also discussed how to navigate graduate school as one of a handful of students of color in their departments. Williams, who received her bachelor’s of science degree from Tuskegee, is aware that the dairy science industry does not reflect her identity, but she does not see that as a barrier to her success in the field.

“Coming to [a predominantly white institution] was a culture shock. I went to an HBCU [a Historically Black College & University,] and coming to here from there was a big difference, you have to get used to that,” she said, adding, “I am in classrooms with a lot of older men who have been farmers their whole lives. Men who have been raising cows since they were three, and I just started. You feel like you have to prove yourself.”

Dilibe Offiah, Ph.D. candidate in Construction Engineering and Management and Sarah Bruno, Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Anthropology
Dilibe Offiah, Ph.D. candidate in Construction Engineering and Management and Sarah Bruno, Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Anthropology

Panelists also shared how they create networks of support on campus. Offiah, a graduate of Jackson State University, admits grad school involves a lot of independent work, but encourages potential applicants to develop a sense of community. “[Coming to UW- Madison for graduate school] was my first big move. I am from Jackson, [Mississippi]. I went to school in Jackson. I am in NSBE [National Society of Black Engineers,] BGPSA, and other organizations. I play basketball at the gym. I walk around on State Street. To meet people, you have to be ready to interact with people.”

The conversation took a lively turn when an undergraduate student asked the panelists if they feel like they are simply filling a role as a minority on campus in their programs. Bruno, who received a full-tuition undergraduate scholarship to UW-Madison, switched into professor mode to answer the question. She drew a diagram, illustrating how generations of white students attend UW-Madison as legacies, and that students of color who take advantage of an opportunity should not feel ashamed of it.

“If your entire family attended the UW for three generations, you have accumulated some privilege. I am the first woman in my family to ever go away to school,” she said.

Bruno also encouraged the students in the room to not focus on people who doubt their abilities but instead think of how their success can impact others who look up to them. “Everyone will look at you a certain way because you are a woman, because you are a minority, because you are something else,” she said. “But if you don’t do it, then who?”

Representation in the scholarship that they produce is just as important for the panelists as physical representation in the classroom. Ashley Smith, a Chicago native who received her master’s degree in Higher Education at Syracuse before coming to UW-Madison, studies black women and girls in education. She wants her research to inform other educators about the difficulties black women and girls face in academic spaces.

“Nobody in my department studies or does any work around black women,” Smith says. “There are no articles that we read in our classes to understand anything about what I would ever experience in life … if [educators] don’t know what black women and girls face, that’s dangerous.”

For more information about the BGPSA, visit their website.