What It’s Really Like to be a BIPOC Student in STEM at Mac

What It’s Really Like to be a BIPOC Student in STEM at Mac

Roon Mahboub, Contributing Writer

I’ll never forget the day I got accepted to Macalester. It was March 11, 2018 and at 6:30am, there was a new notification from the Mac admissions portal. I anxiously handed my phone to my brother and told him to open it, and he responded with an eye roll. Upon hitting the ‘view notification’ button, he looked up, smiled, and said “Roon, you got in.” I remember weeping and screaming because I was excited. I knew, right then and there that I wanted to study some sort of science, and after a particularly hard February, this was the sort of validation I needed to make me feel better: a metaphorical ray of hope to get me through my dreadful senior year.

As I reflect back on my first year at Mac, I begin to wonder when I lost all my enthusiasm. During my time in CHEM 111, I understood all the lectures. I was able to complete the homework easily and had a solid group of friends in the class that I was able to compare answers with. The professor was extremely kind. But something wasn’t clicking. Was it due to the lack of support I have had? Was I not as smart as my fellow classmates? Was I one of the accidental yesses that the Mac offered to the class of 2022? I spent many nights and many days thinking about this, especially during the fall of my freshman year. It wasn’t until I went to a retreat hosted by the DML in November 2018 that I heard the term ‘imposter syndrome.’ 

Imposter syndrome, as defined by Abigail Abrams in a Time Magazine article titled ‘Yes, Imposter Syndrome Is Real. Here’s How to Deal With It,” is “…the idea that you’ve only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talent or qualifications…” Finally, a term that I could relate to! And at that retreat, I learned that I wasn’t alone and I felt relieved. Sure, I was the 4.0+ GPA overachiever who took every single AP class that my rural Minnesotan high school offered. Yes, I got an A in AP Chemistry, but got Ds on multiple CHEM 111 exams in my first year. Some of the DML speakers at that retreat emphasized that my accomplishments were not a definition of my worth: I made it to Mac, and that should be enough.

But it wasn’t. Not with the looming expectation for me, as a Black Muslim woman, to be exceptional. There is absolutely no room to be mediocre or subpar, otherwise I run the risk of looking like someone who was accepted strictly to be that one hijabi or Black girl in the back of the lecture hall. Every time I converse with my father about my grades, he says, “You have to work twice as hard to get half as far,” and he’s not wrong. While in Organic Chemistry last year, I’d start studying for an exam a week in advance, only to end up with a C. I would constantly ask for help in office hours and spend hours watching YouTube videos explaining lecture content. It got me thinking: why am I spending approximately $200 per class period only to spend more time on YouTube after class learning the same material?

I like to reminisce about my time at Mac so far, and that’s what the focal point of this article has been. I don’t like sugarcoating details, but I do like finding solutions. Thanks to my friend Rafael Viana Furer’s amazing ability to bring people together, I have been able to connect with other chemistry students: Shreya Nagdev, Brian Zou and Maya Lawnicki, and we have been able to draw similar experiences as BIPOC students in STEM. Together, we were able to talk to the chemistry department about making their courses more inclusive to BIPOC students. 

I found our conversation with the department extremely productive and though the process for implementing these changes are going slow, I’m excited to see the impact these changes bear not only in the chemistry department, but in the other departments in Olin-Rice. These feelings of being the only person with marginalized identity causes fewer people who hold these identities to go into fields of science. This allows for scientists and science to remain homogenous. It doesn’t make any sense for institutions such as Macalester to preach about diversity and inclusivity when they are the institutions responsible for making the barrier of entry for these BIPOC students so high. There is a need for great minds in the science community, but hey, maybe that mind is on the fence because taking more chemistry classes causes a negative impact on their mental health. Maybe that mind doesn’t want to spend hours studying just to get a mediocre GPA. Maybe that individual would have cured cancer or could’ve won a Nobel Prize. We may never know. 

My family says I’ve changed. I’m not as optimistic as I was back in 2018. Maybe this is part of getting older? I will say that I’ve learned to separate my self-worth from my grades. I am not a number:  4.0, 3.5, 2.5 are all values that won’t make a difference once you find your path: whether it’s to be a CEO, a doctor, a filmmaker or a stay-at-home parent. 

I will say that I am the main character, and so far in the movie, I’ve been bending over backwards to clear my schedule and drop additional interests to make it to office hours and tutoring sessions. Until the part of the movie where everything gets better, I don’t want any other Mac student, be they a student of color or not, to stare at their reflection in their laptop screen at 2 in the morning while on their 9th cup of coffee and to feel like that is their destiny for the rest of their time at Mac. It shouldn’t be.