Creating safe spaces for girls of color in STEM

About SFD
bySTEM From Dance
onFebruary 28, 2023

No matter the odds that are stacked against us, STEM From Dance is committed to diversifying the STEM workforce. But as we navigate a white, male-dominated industry and decades of systemic racism, we know we cannot do this alone. It takes a village.

Simone Hyater-Adams, Ph.D., is one of the leaders of our village creating change for girls of color every day. As the Manager of Alumni Programs, she builds the programming and strategy to develop opportunities for SFD alum after they graduate high school. As part of that effort, she is conducting surveys and focus groups to gain an understanding of what girls want and need after our programs, and providing them with STEM-related opportunities to continue nurturing their love of STEM.

Growing up, Simone was always interested in the arts, which can be owed to her parents, who were musicians. Simone was a very curious child who would always ask questions and had gone through many artistic aspirations before realizing that science was where she really excelled. After taking a physics class in high school, her “mind was blown at the fact that we could predict things that will happen in the world with math.

While Simone still felt love for the arts after a childhood spent singing, dancing, and even dabbling in playwriting, she pursued her love of physics at Hampton University, an HBCU in Virginia. Like many of our students, she had yet to find a way to combine her two passions of STEM and the arts. During her time as an undergrad, Simone was surrounded by other Black students, but there were few to no women in her department to whom she could reach out for guidance. Her program was so small that she was one of two people from her freshman cohort to graduate from the physics program. When asked if she ever felt isolated as a Black woman studying STEM, Simone said the isolation she felt in undergrad mainly stemmed from the lack of peers in her classes. “Getting through college physics classes is almost impossible if you don't have a study group or people to help you. There were some classes where I was literally the only student, and so it wasn't even a class. I was just working through the book with a professor advising me, which hurt me.” However, one perk of the small program was the opportunities it afforded Simone as one of the few physics students. “I was pushed into research because I was at this school where it was so small that they were handpicking students for opportunities.” This research led Simone to her studies in Colorado, which was a very different experience from an HBCU.

Simone moved from her small community at Hampton to being in the minority in a primarily white space. This isolation and the lack of preparedness she felt from her small undergrad classes made her almost lose her love for science. “At the time I was like, oh my God, I feel like I've been cheating my way through physics. I had textbook imposter syndrome. There were people around me who were trying to help me, but I was so scared they were going to realize I don't have what it takes to be in this space.” Because of people's assumptions about Black women in STEM, Simone felt she couldn’t ask her white peers for help. “That was the impact of institutional racism on my imposter syndrome… feed[ing] into this stereotype of Black people not knowing enough or being less than in this space was something I did not want to do.”

As a result, Simone decided to shift her mindset to focus more on what classes she needed in order to conduct the education research for her dissertation, instead of working to gain the respect of those in the physics department. She enrolled in classes with the departments of education, dance, and ethnic studies. Instead of being “a cog in a much larger machine that was predominantly white,” Simone began to look at her own identity and her passion for exposing more Black students to science. Back when she was deciding on graduate programs, she reflected on her favorite times throughout her educational journey, and realized they were times when she was teaching and doing outreach. “That's a trend we know students, especially Black students in STEM, can benefit from - outreach.” This realization is what drove her to pursue the highly interdisciplinary work that she continues today.

Simone’s experiences as a Black woman who loves STEM and the arts ultimately led her to STEM From Dance. “I think what we're able to do here at SFD really well is build up connections between our girls while they're in the program, especially Girls Rise Up, our summer program.” A prime example of this is Lydia, who participated in GRU in 2022, she felt “STEM From Dance had this sense of community. If we needed help, we could ask someone else without feeling shame for not knowing something.”

Simone wants to create more programs that do just that and support college-age students pursuing STEM. Jonay, a GRU participant who went on to study Finance at Adelphi University, said, “Being in a space where you don't feel seen or recognized or heard, I've dealt with the microaggressions from students and faculty and staff, and it dwells on you sometimes. Just seeing where people are now and still connecting with them and having that community, I think, would have made the college experience feel a lot less like a culture shock.” Simone keeps these stories, and her own college experience in mind when creating new ways to support STEM From Dance alum as they pursue their STEM degrees.

What most STEM students need is a person, a community, a place to go to where they actually feel safe enough to be vulnerable and get what they need for their next step on their path.” Thanks to Simone, our alumni program will become that safe space for many.

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