Professors Talk Diversity In Higher Education

Four professors offered their personal insight on how to succeed in academia at a panel entitled “Diversity in Higher Education:

Academic Career Pathways” hosted by the Office of Career Services and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences last night.

At a time when 44 percent of incoming Harvard freshmen are of color and 20 percent are international, Assistant Dean for Diversity Relations and Communications Robert P. Mitchell, who organized the event, said he specifically wanted to invite four professionals of color to share the various pathways they took to academia.

Throughout the event, the panelists touched on the obstacles they faced and overcame. Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds specifically described her prior experience as an African-American woman working in the male-dominated field of Electrical Engineering and Physics.

After battling with isolation as a student, Hammonds said she realized that she could build a support network by staying dedicated to her work.

“What matters is the engagement with the production of new knowledge,” she said. “We may not share ancestry, sexuality, class, or race, but what makes it possible for us to sit around the seminar room and feel like a community of scholars is that we’ve made a commitment to this production.”

Hammonds also emphasized the necessity of mentorship. She recounted an experience in which an advisor handed her six pages of dissertation comments. While the letter consisted of constructive criticism, it also ended with “You can do this,” she said.

“I learned that you have to have mentors. These are the people who will tell you the absolute truth,” she said.

Coming from various backgrounds, the other panelists also offered their own distinct advice. MIT Assistant Professor of Music Michael S. Cuthbert ’06 focused on taking initiative, encouraging students to build relationships with their peers and faculty.

“Get people to understand you, and let people know who you really are so they can tailor their advice to you,” he told the audience.

Harvard Medical School Assistant Professor Sheila M. Thomas and Clinical Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures at New York University Maria de Lourdes Dávila ’89 pointed out that career plans often deviate and learning to work through failure is key.

While Thomas said she had to dismiss pressures to enter medical school in pursuit of her passion for research, Dávila said she spent ten years simultaneously writing her literature dissertation and dancing in New York.

Researcher and soon-to-be Harvard graduate student Shirley C. Sun, who attended the panel, said she found the speakers informative and inspiring.

“I learned that you don’t have be so self-conscious of your differences in the academy just because you’re underrepresented. Think about your contribution. In the end that’s how you join the club,” she said.

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