The C. Christine Johnson Voices of Color Lecture Series recently offered Hamilton students an opportunity to connect with their faculty and administrators outside of the classroom and on a personal level. Discussing race and gender, five faculty and staff members shared their experiences about negotiating their roles in their respective fields, despite the obstacles that gender and being a person of color impose.
The panelists included Rhea Datta (biology); Mariam Durrani (anthropology); Gbemende Johnson, (government); Mireille Koukjian (Arabic), and Miriam Merrill, associate director of athletics. The participants came with diverse backgrounds and have been at Hamilton ranging from 10 or more years to just two months.
All of the panelists understood how it felt being not only the only person of color but also the only woman in the room.
“Undergraduate I went to a very diverse institution… I encountered a lot of women of color there,” Johnson said. “Graduate school was a different story—I went to Vanderbilt University. I know for my first 3 years I was the only African American woman.”
The lecture series allows students, faculty, and staff—regardless of age, background or job position—to better understand each other’s experiences, especially regarding qualities as inherent to one’s identity as gender and race. It is also an opportunity to offer advice from professionals who have navigated their space in accomplished fields to undergraduate students.
“I’m interested in creating a space in the STEM field, and my lab to start with, where people of color can feel welcome and included. I do feel more motivated than ever to create a more inclusive environment in STEM and biology,” Datta said.
Most importantly, there is an explicit emphasis on seeking out, creating and relying on community.
Merrill said, “My biggest challenge is being a black woman and an administrator, which people don’t expect. I’m constantly having that conversation with folks of who I am.” Her advice to students of color “A common thread [is] this network; if there is one thing I can throw out there, it is this strong connection. Connecting yourself to those around you will be helpful."
Durrani commented on experiences off the Hill that made her feel isolated. "[When] I moved into Clinton I wish someone had told me that you should consider other areas to live in; it’s very small, very white, and very rural," she said. Even her daughter shared a similar experience. "It’s one thing being the only one here, but it’s another thing being the only one here and being eight," Durrani said.
Johnson attested to the support network that she relied on, often landing in the office of Director of Opportunity Programs Phyllis Breland.
“I still remember Phyllis Breland’s advice: ‘stand on your square. Don’t let anyone let you feel like you don’t belong here,’” Johnson recalled.