On Being an Outlier
The students stood quietly in line, their mortarboards balanced on their heads. Each was dressed in a slightly different graduation gown, often expressing their individuality or their culture. There were brilliant embroideries hung around their necks, or the simple, sober black gown of graduation. Some cried. All grinned. Big night.
As each person came on stage to accept congratulations, we in the audience were treated to about a minute of how and why each of these people of color had completed their PhD.
One said that she had lost eight family members during the course of her journey to complete her degree.
Let that sink in.
Eight family members. And yet, there she stood.
Another said that years ago, she was in an audience of youngsters when the speaker asked what they wanted to accomplish. She had raised her hand and said,
“I want to get my PhD!” The speaker icily stared at her, as though such a dream was beyond any realm of possibility. How dare she dream such a thing.
Yet here she stood on stage, with a PhD in mathematics.
Another told the story of how she scored the lowest possible passing score in basic math. Yet here she stood with a PhD in Modeling and Simulation, about to become a professor at a prestigious American university.
Another? “I was always the little brown girl in the room.”
That “little brown girl” was on stage with her PhD.
Outliers. All of them. Against all odds, against discrimination, ducking (literal and figurative) bullets, doubting their right to be in the room, all now celebrating what had once seemed impossible.
Every year, just before Halloween, the Southern Regional Education Board holds a conference for these minority scholars. Each year we celebrate the final crowning achievement, which is their PhD. Those who are still in the All But Dissertation phase only get a single clap. These rest enjoy a huge round of applause. Deservedly.
Each year, and this was #17 for me, I do a program on Networking Skills. I share the podium with Dr. Jean Fuller-Stanley, who has a degree in Chemistry. She is also Black. I am neither Black nor do I possess a doctorate (although, for three lovely days out of every year, I am mistakenly referred to as “Dr. Hubbel,” which gives me no end of pleasure, only to have reality come crashing down around my ears as soon as I get back home).
This year I changed up my program a bit to address some disconcerting statistics. I told a funny story about online dating (my whole life in online dating is a funny story), which underscored the rocky road that we travel when we try to parce through the data presented us by potential suitors. Some 81% of us lie on line. Because of that, my very honest, direct, and easy-to-verify online profile is met with rank disbelief. I hardly blame people, if my own experience with widespread dishonesty is any indication of the average.
Having gotten their (confused and bemused) attention, I hit them with the tough reality: according to Inc. Magazine, fully 85% of us lie on our resumes.
Here’s how that affects folks who are genuine outliers. The outliars, if you will, pour sewage into the conversation, making it increasingly difficult for those in a position to hire to be able to sort reality from digital padding. It takes lots of time and effort to fact-check. However, no institution wants to be caught having made a hire based on fraud, so check they must.
It gets exhausting, which is why the ability make strong impressions and interpersonal connections is so key to their success.
The next hurdle is confirmation bias. At the SREB conference, the floor is crowded with institutions from Clemson to Old Dominion to Penn State, all competing for quality faculty and researchers of color. The future of America is a multi-dimensional, diverse one, from age to race to gender to religion. Whether people are comfortable with this isn’t the issue. It is where we’re headed. That means more leaders, more teachers more administrators need to look like those who are coming. Be trained to be in a position to mentor. The best institutions are hiring the best candidates of color because this increases student engagement, as well as provides critical role models in the classroom. That motivate kids of color to continue their studies.
Those institutions which crowd the conference floor each year have recruiters who get it. Outside SREB, however, these kids are met with the kind of incredulity that can come as a shock once they leave the relative safety of their research work. People who simply can’t embrace the notion that a Black or Brown kid could get a PhD, or would even want one.
Those scholars are subjected to even more scrutiny because of such bias. In a world of outliars, which is now the norm, outstanding kids of color actually have an additional disadvantage. With so many folks lying outright, what looks to someone like an outrageous claim is likely to be treated as such and discarded out of hand.
Of course it’s patently unfair. You put in years of yeoman’s work, you’ve earned the paper, and people don’t believe you because of your color.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The cost of being an outlier is high. These scholars choose to rise above circumstances, poverty, loss, family history and heartbreak. They earn scholarships (not athletic, but merit), work multiple jobs, raise families and eke out an existence while doing the grueling scholarly work.
For each, standing in front of the very audience in which, just a year or so before, they were sitting wondering if they would ever see the end of the tunnel, feels like a magnificent ending. It is. And it’s also just the beginning of the next hard slog, which is proving yourself in a world that often makes unfair assumptions.
As in, a Black girl traveling abroad is a prostitute.
As in, a Black man standing in the building foyer is looking for a janitorial job.
As in, an Hispanic man walking into a university’s human resources office is looking for his Lyft customer, not interviewing for the professor’s position in the Chemistry Department.
As in, the “little brown girl” can’t possibly be the Department Head. She must be delivering class supplies.
While this is changing slowly, it’s still the world in which they have to navigate.
The job of the outlier, for these brilliant kids and young adults, is to make themselves the majority. To change the makeup of and the conversation around what it means to be a person of color, educated, tenured, and influential in the development of millions more just like themselves coming up.
Why is this important now? Because according to SREB, only 6% of current US faculty are Black, 5% Hispanic or Latino. Of the 1,000 scholars that SREB has assisted, 80% are currently faculty or administrators on US campuses. I can attest to some of those who chose, for now, not to be faculty. They are in the diplomatic corps. They speak multiple languages. They’ve written books and are working in senior Fortune 100 jobs, or running their own businesses.
It’s a long, difficult road when you are the first in your family to attend college, much less go on to graduate school. Even more so, a PhD. SREB’s graduates end up earning more than Black PhD graduates who didn’t attend SREB conferences.
I’m no scholar, and I’m not a statistician. Nor am I a PhD. But I think I know why. The SREB conferences provide a forum by which these outliers find each other. The supportive networks they build become critical second families to them, especially when things get tough. There’s nothing like having someone who knows what’s it like show up for you when you’re ready to toss in the towel. The SREB network provides the critical connective tissue that will not let them fail.
More than one graduate on stage spoke to the importance of networks. Outliers helping outliers, until they are outliers no more.
At some point, the Black or Brown kid in the advanced class won’t be an anomaly. At some point, their credentials won’t be questioned. These scholars are the leading edge of the charge to change the conversation around brilliant kids and young adults of color, who dream of research, becoming faculty, and changing the world. For themselves, their families, their students, their countries.
Being an outlier takes courage. Every year I get to hang out with some of the brightest, more courageous people on the planet. Young men and women of color who tackle hard topics, and then take the high, hard road to take their expertise into the world as teachers, administrators, executives, business people, researchers changing how we think, see and live.
I can’t imagine being anywhere else, in the third weekend of October.