Who Am I When the Little Things Add Up?

Professional photo of Dr. Tandeka Boko
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Tandeka Stanback Boko, M.D.
STEM Core Student Support Specialist
Forsyth Technical Community College
Dr. Calvin Briggs
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Calvin Briggs, Ed.D.
Executive Director
The Southern Center for Broadening Participation in STEM

Caption: A STEM Story with Dr. Tandeka Boko. Click here for the full SciTech Series Interview – NC STEM Alliance.

The neurological case for implementing evidence-based practices that widen the door and brighten the corridor for underrepresented minority students to persist in STEM.

You put the pieces of a puzzle together that were not meant to fit. – Forsyth Tech STEM Fellow

Being the STEM Advisor/Navigator for the NC STEM Alliance at Forsyth Technical Community College (Forsyth Tech) in Winston Salem, NC, affords me the honor of engaging in meaningful high impact practices.1  Sometimes these inter-active activities elicit comments, like those above that came from an African American Male STEM Fellow, who spoke them to me after one of our one-on-one advising2 sessions.

A Glimpse at My Identities

And just because I need more, does not mean that I am needy.

I was born in Tennessee to parents who met as teenagers outside during my father’s paperboy bicycle route. I am the eldest of 4 children, 3 girls and a boy. My parents, and thus, by default my siblings and I, were very active in community events, particularly those related to political social issues of race and justice. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a wife. I am a child of God. I am African. I am American. I am Native American. I am a heterosexual. I am a thinker. I am a giver. I am a leader. I am a doctor who is a medical educator. My multiple identities impact how I show up in this world. They also guide the experiential framework of my approach to addressing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging within the STEM world.

I earned my medical doctorate from a mid-Western historically white institution (HWI). Although I actively participated in undergraduate and graduate summer bridge programs and research, had regular access to a small cohort of like-minded minority students and an upper-class peer mentor, frequented the offices of my advisors3 often (and my professors too), and was considered a high-achieving student from both an academic and community engagement standpoint, it wasn’t enough. In order for me to survive and thrive in a STEM professional program, I needed more to feel like I belonged. And just because I need more, does not mean that I am needy.

In spite of the fact that my educational pathway differs from the community college, underrepresented minority (URM) STEM Fellows with whom I work, our experiences in higher education bear many similarities that connect us all too well. In the book Black, Brown, Bruised How Racialized STEM Education Stifles Innovation, the research of author Ebony McGee explores conditions that many URM STEM students face along their road to success (within both educational and workplace systems). These conditions include racial stereotype threats, biases (implicit, as well as explicit), and microaggressions.4 URM students are seen as tokens, their abilities are underestimated or questioned, and for institutions, peers or colleagues who may not be equipped to challenge racism, they may even align themselves with the color-blind ideology4 when interacting with URM students. Unfortunately for us, continuous living in this toxic environment of racial verbal and non-verbal assaults, leads to racial battle fatigue5 (the result of time and energy required to negate racial and discriminatory non-verbal and verbal, overt and covert actions, images, programs, policies and outcomes), at its best, and premature psychological and physiological stress-related death, at its worst. The neuroscience makes this sad reality clear.

Racism as a Precursor to Deficit Mindset

The neuroscience makes this sad reality clear too.

Research reveals that the brain has two major systems: system one and system two.6  In brief, system one involves the more primitive subcortical brain areas which provide our fight or flight danger signal warning responses. This system is fast and involves automatic unconscious thinking that remembers traumatic experiences and is constantly on the alert of dangers, including acts that evoke memories of painful events, in order to respond with fear to run away from the danger or to fight oneself out of the dangerous situation.  System two is our neocortex characterized by slow deliberate conscientious controlled deep thinking or reasoning, to often arrive at healthier more meaningful ways of responding to danger. Because system one is always on and efficiently housing memories of traumatic events, it exists to protect us from danger, such as repeated traumatic events, and requires little effort to do so. This is true because system one is automatic.7 When the daily stressors of racism trigger system one, the hormone called cortisol, which is normally to be released on a short-term basis in order to flee or fight, is now continuously secreted due to the continuous negative impact of racism. This elevated level of cortisol, in turn, causes increased heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose levels and a decrease in cognitive function. When these physiological effects on one’s body are prolonged, they lead to hypertension,8 heart disease, diabetes, depressed mental performance, and other harmful inflammatory diseases, thereby decreasing one’s quality of life and shortening one’s life span (premature death).

Homeostasis Matters

The Power of Positive Affirmations: Psalm 139:14, “I will give thanks to You, because I am awesomely and wonderfully made…”

Now, let’s circle back around to what I needed as a STEM student to not just survive, but to thrive in medical school. (And, if the truth be told, I often times still need it now.) As an Anatomy and Physiology Professor, I know and teach that homeostasis (balance) matters. Otherwise, disease will abound. The world of STEM is stressful enough with a survival-of-the-fittest culture with “cut-throat” competition and grueling hours devoted to academia, at the neglect of self-care, to prove oneself to others, and so on and so forth. Then the URM student has the added loads of the continuous bombardment of microaggressions, racialized stereotypical assaults, and/or hostile environments where they do not see themselves as worthy (imposter syndrome9 and lack of feelings of belonging).

To provide balance within a racialized world, I had to invoke my system two brain and speak to myself on a daily basis. I had to utilize self-discipline in doing so because my life depended on it! Here, I chose to use the self-discipline definition of Kenneth Boa in Handbook to Leadership in the Image of God. Self-discipline is that quality that allows me to do what needs to be done even when I don’t feel like doing it.10  Instead of constantly doing what others needed me to do, I took some time to do what “I needed me to do.” I carried around, and read, notecards that had affirmative messages from Biblical scriptures and from family and peers who believed that I belonged in the world of STEM.

Belonging Matters

Literature as a Tool for Building Efficacy

Equally as important, I needed to do something to make me feel like I belonged. I didn’t see myself in the curriculum, nor in the faculty. There was very little obvious evidence of me in the administration, as well as within the hospitals and clinics. During my first year in medical school, one of my peers whose parents are from Nigeria, gave me a book by Charles S. Finch, entitled The African Background To Medical Science Essays on African History, Science and Civilizations. That book and its contents made me so happy! I could finally see how I belonged in medicine. Not only did I belong, but my ancestors worked to cultivate and document their knowledge, which built the foundational concepts used in the world of modern medicine to this day. Charles S. Finch also expresses a great debt of gratitude to the work of Senegalese physicist and multidisciplinary scholar, Cheikh Anta Diop, for his work in dismantling the myth that all learning—math, medicine, astronomy, metallurgy, religion and arts– were initiated by the Greeks. Instead, he revealed and defended the evidence of the African origins of both physical and intellectual civilizations and knowledge.11

A Call to Action

So how does one begin exploring who one is to widen the door and brighten the corridor for URM students to persist in STEM?

Interrogate levels of oppression and change:12

Personal (i.e. values, beliefs, feelings)
  • We must unpack our own baggage first, starting with ourselves before we can help anyone else or help communities of people.
  • Start by thinking about and identifying one’s own multiple identities and how each one shapes personal values, beliefs, feelings and therefore, one’s own behaviors.
  • Awareness of Self as a Cultural Being13 (document has practice activities).
Interpersonal (i.e. relationships, behaviors, treatment)
  • Examine or even outline how personal identities affect one’s abilities to connect with and to engage with other individual people, other groups of people, other regions of people, other organizations, etc.
Cultural (i.e. norms, unwritten rules, stories, media)
  • Cultural interrogations include the culture of institutions, in addition to one’s own individual cultural norms. Identify the demonstrated evidence of the work of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, including the outcomes of that work.
  • For guidance on becoming powerful change agents in the midst of resistance, follow Transformational Change Talk Radio with Dr. Kathy Obear. Listen to a YouTube conversation recording with Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington where they discuss identifying and overcoming potholes in the culture change process.14
Institutional (i.e. policies, practices, rules)

“Specifically, educators need to address their own racial attitudes, beliefs, and expectations as they relate to their students of color as well as their White students.” – Glenn Singleton15

Systemic16 (i.e. historical antecedents, across sectors and institutions)

It must be noted that the work of actions for change is continuous and needed by all, when addressing issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging within higher education. Won’t you join me?