This post is part of our series #BlackInAstro. For our cornerstone post, see here. This week, we will be posting a #BlackInAstro story every day for #BlackInAstroWeek. In this installment, we are publishing a post by Cheyenne Polius, a Masters student at the University of Sheffield in the UK and a co-founder of the St Lucia National Astronomy Association!
I am an international student who moved to the UK in 2015 to start my Integrated Masters in Physics and Astrophysics. I knew I was moving to a predominantly white country and an even less diverse city but at the time I was so focused on my dream, I didn’t think of how much the demographic would affect my experience. Out of over 100 students in my first year, I was the only Black woman, and there were only 4 Black men. I found that I struggled to have fulfilling conversations and friendships because I just didn’t connect with a lot of the people I met. Of course, there were non-Black people I got along with, but there have been countless times that I’ve just felt isolated. My academic environment doesnt give me a strong sense of belonging, and I think it has had a negative impact on my university experience. While the lack of diversity in Physics starts long before university, I think departments have a duty to collate resources that can help give the few Black students they have the best experience possible. Universities have cultural/national societies and other groups that have given me the sense of belonging that I craved, but I didn’t find any of them through my department.
So I think while outreach activities are going on to try to encourage students from all underrepresented groups to pursue Physics, there are things departments can do to make the few Black students they have feel more comfortable. These include but are not limited to: directly signposting Black students to cultural/national societies from day 1, and actively participating in and/or showing support for important things like Black History Month and the Black Lives Matter movement. If it cannot be done through the department because there is an official duty for academic departments to remain neutral/apolitical, it can surely be done through the Physics Society because they are part of the Students’ Union. My experience with the Physics Society has not been a great one for that same feeling of isolation. During my four years, I’ve only been to a handful of events, and I felt out of place in all of them simply for the colour of my skin and inability to connect with the people who were there.
An ideal Physics department to me would have more Black students, Black lecturers (I have none), more Black PhD students/postdocs; enough so it doesn’t feel like you shouldn’t be there. With everything going on in America, I hadn’t heard anything from my university or department, and I felt like there was no one I could reach out to who would fully understand how I was feeling. That’s not okay because this is something that has an impact on my academic life too. I’m lucky to have a support system of Black friends and family, but it is heartbreaking that I didn’t even want to reach out to my department because I just felt like they’re so disconnected from the experience of Black students. They have been very supportive in general for other issues and I knew I would be listened to if I reached out. However, it was that feeling of “no one will get it” that made me hesitant. This should not be the reality.
I reached out anyway because I struggled to focus for the whole first week of June, which was not ideal since I had to keep to some tight deadlines for my coursework. I spoke to the welfare advisor and I could barely keep it together while I tried to explain what was going on in my head. I couldn’t stop the tears. I was at the peak of my workload, a couple of weeks from finishing my degree but I was too mentally and emotionally exhausted to get work done. My department agreed to extensions so I could finish my final assessments, and they really did everything in their power to make sure I was okay and that my circumstances are taken into account. So although they may not fully understand how this affected me, they want to do better and that’s reassuring. It’s difficult to explain how these race-related issues affect people and I think Physics departments have a duty to make sure they can support their Black students and make them feel like it’s okay to reach out. I probably wouldn’t have said anything if I didn’t foresee missing those important deadlines. It would have made a world of a difference if they publicly acknowledged the difficulty Black students might have been facing recently so we would be more encouraged to reach out and express what we were going through.
If you’re interested in learning more about Cheyenne, check out her Twitter thread introducing herself!