Guest Post: Representing the Underrepresented in Academia


Editor’s Note: We welcome back guest blogger Lilliann Paine from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She works in the public health field. Check out Lilliann’s first Fakequity blog post about being a Catalyst for Change.

Research is an important part of my academic experience. As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I applied and was selected to participate in the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. The McNair Scholars Program is one of several TRIO Programs historically funded by the U.S. Department of Education supporting the academic achievement from groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

**A program supporting academic achievement from groups traditionally underrepresented**

The McNair Scholars Program is where I got my feet wet in the pool of research and scholarship. If not for that research program experience, I would not have the current network of support I lean on…hard. Being a member of an underrepresented group is tough. Being a member of an underrepresented group and an academic is a huge responsibility. I aspire to be more than an inconsequential representation. I don’t want to burn out before my light can truly shine.

As a McNair Scholar, peers with similar aspirations and a shared lived experience, the experience of the traditionally underrepresented, surrounded me. This is a big deal because I’ve only attended Predominately White Institutions (PWI) since kindergarten.

As McNair Scholars, we were equipped to become Doctors of Philosophy—PhD! In fact, the goal was to complete doctoral studies. Through this program, I experienced:

  • A culture of excellence with the prioritization of leadership!
  • We were paired with Faculty level researchers (Mentors).
  • We received GRE preparation (standardized test you are required to take when applying to college).
  • We were tasked with a completing a mini-thesis (asking a research question and finding the answer through literature review and experimentation) with the expectation to defend at the end of our six-week summer program.

The McNair Scholars program is dedicated to preserving Dr. Ronald McNair’s legacy of scholarship and accomplishments. Dr. McNair was nationally recognized for his work in laser physics and was one of the thirty-five applicants selected by NASA from a pool of ten thousand. He became the second African-American to make a flight into space. He was a mission specialist on the space shuttle Challenger.

I was motivated to honor Dr. McNair’s legacy. I wanted my life’s work and research to answer tough questions about racism and its impact on health. I had hope that I could break down racial barriers like Dr. McNair and would become a trailblazer just like him!

Along the way, I must have romanticized the idea of leadership and collegiality. In the real world, academia provides an “ascription of intelligence” that requires “sanity checks.” A sanity check is an act of seeking out other POCs to help validate the existence of racial microaggressions to check perceptions of racists incidents.

Lilliann’s Personal Sanity Checks
Is this person an assigned mentor – someone who is telling me something that my boss doesn’t feel comfortable saying to me? Is this person a sponsor –someone who is a powerful advocate on my behalf when I cannot speak for myself?
Am I put in this workplace as a diversity quota? Am I put in charge as a leader with autonomy?
Is this work inclusive? Does the work further isolate those who experience marginalization?
Is this work in the name of equality? Is this work the practice of equity?
Is the goal to build a system? Is the goal to dismantle a system?

As an academic, I consider it a top priority to understand the concept of power and how that is confounded by the social construct of race, gender, and class. Within academia, at times, there is a lack of racial consciousness. Almost like a culture of race aversion—unless you are studying a discipline that explores racial consciousness. It’s important to understand racial fallacies exist and the minimization of racism (aka colorblindness) impacts leadership. Studies have shown that when women and non-whites talk about workplace diversity, they are punished. The desired change I would like to see in academia is a culture shift. The raised awareness and critical analysis of racial consciousness. That is the articulation of power and difference at the institutional level. From my experience as a person of color, I’ve learned that leadership can be lonely. However, when leadership is tethered to exceptionalism it is isolating.

As an emerging leader, I’ve held mid-level leadership roles in my short career. With each job, I was looking for the sense of community I had as a McNair Scholar. As one person, I cannot change an entire system. As I’ve learned more about leading for racial equity, I became familiar with the work of two racial equity practitioners: Gina Gulati-Partee and Maggie Potapchuk. They identified concrete ways change could happen at an institution. Through their experience, they acknowledged in order for an institution to work towards racial equity through their philanthropic investments and leadership, they must shine a light on white privilege and white culture both internally and externally. For me, at the root (within academia) it’s about working twice as hard to get half as much. The standard goes back to white and the concept of whiteness—long term objective is the need to heal from historical trauma and intergenerational effects of historical trauma.

What is the value of a TRIO Program these days? Is the long-term goal for higher education to reach transformative racial equity for students of color? Or is the long-term goal to create conditions for students of color to thrive? Or is the goal to do away with institutional racism?

Over ten years later, I am a champion for health equity, doing the difficult work of finding an alternative path based in the community, to meet health objectives while embracing equity. McNair worked for me! We need to continue funding programs that create a pipeline to leadership within academia, business and the trades especially for those that underrepresented. Our collective futures depends on the success of the most vulnerable and underrepresented.