Mentors and Representation

12th June 2017
Jessica Esquivel

I’m used to being the only woman of color (WOC) in the room. In undergrad, most of my college career consisted of me being the only black/Mexican woman in a class composed of mostly men. I bonded with the one or two other women in my class so it wasn’t so isolating. I’ve been so used to being “other” that it didn’t phase me until I went for my PhD in physics. The rigor in the classes were kicked up a notch and I struggled keeping up. I was accepted into the program with a prestigious STEM fellowship which allowed me to not have to be a Teaching Assistant. This separated myself even more from my peers who were predominately white men.  The homework assigned from books like Shankar and Jackson were so hard: I remember spending nights working on one problem and just crying to my mom that I didn’t understand it and feeling like I didn’t deserve to 1. be there and 2. be awarded that fellowship. While I spent hours on end doing 1 problem, my peers were working together to get their homework done in half the time. That feeling of being an impostor; of not fitting in totally affects your self worth. I didn’t feel worthy enough to even ask to join their study group! There was no one that looked like me, and it was hard to fit in. On top of that, there were professors that didn’t think I could hack it, or used examples to explain the material that were pretty sexist. One time, explaining some probability equation, a professor decided to use sperm as an example, and then proceeded to call me out and say something to the effect of “But you wouldn’t know anything about that!” I, of course, was the only female in the class, it was uncomfortable to say the least. I already stuck out like a sore thumb being a lesbian WOC in a predominately white male class, it wasn’t necessary to further “other” me. My peers were uncomfortable by this comment as well and after class asked how I felt about it. While I appreciated their concern, I just wanted to forget about it and was upset that no one called that teacher out. 

While there were many instances like this, I was again fortunate to have people in my corner. I don’t think I would be anywhere near finishing my PhD if it weren’t for professors like Mitch Soderberg, Duncan Brown and Jedidah Isler. My advisor Mitch saw potential in me as a researcher, he’d seen my work as an undergraduate and kept pushing me to finish courses and still pushes me to this day to do good research. Jedidah was the first black woman physicist I had ever met. She came to the university in my last semester. I was “THIS” close to quitting, I had already failed  my qualifiers twice (biggest exam of my life that tests every physics knowledge you could think of). She requested to meet with me one day for lunch and honestly I was reluctant. I was embarrassed of my progress (or lack there of) and had become pretty much a hermit. That lunch changed my life, we talked about how I was feeling, not how well I was performing in class, but how I was fitting into the class dynamic and she understood how difficult it is to be feel different and how this affects your coursework. Being represented like that, and hearing her story and how she went through similar struggles was super important to my progress as a physicist. Lastly, Duncan Brown took the time every week for a whole semester to help set up and lead a study group to help us pass the qualifiers. He is an amazing teacher and that group was instrumental to helping me finally pass on the third try (third time’s the charm!). He was patient and broke down complicated theories without making us feel dumb. These three pillars of light helped me stay the course. I can now say I am well on my way to being one of around 100 african american women with a PhD in physics in the U.S. If that number is jarring to you, it should be, because it is a ridiculous number! In 2012 alone there were 1,762 Physics PhDs awarded, yet only around 100 black women got their PhD EVER?! Let’s leave this topic for another day but take away this; I’m very close to being on that list of amazing women, but I didn’t do it alone. I was lucky enough to have amazing people along the way to help steer me towards my end goal and help foster the intellect that they saw and that I questioned in myself. Having mentors and representation was key to my current success and I take this to heart and hope to be a pillar of light to a young WOC who has an interest in STEM.