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Empowering Students through Research

Empowering Students through Research  

Students of Color’s Experiences of Finding Themselves in Undergraduate Research

by Mya Vannoy, Undergraduate Research Ambassador 

As youths, we are often told to go to college and get a degree, but seldom are we told what to do once we get here. The cliché stories of black and brown students overcoming poverty and discrimination to graduate high school and go to college are always told, but what happens to these students when they are finally “living their dream?” We come to college only to be the only black person in a biology lecture of 200 people and to cringe at our professors calling our ancestors red Indians. Students of color at predominately white universities have to endure a sense of isolation that can be detrimental to our well-being and, therefore, our education. Our strong sense of determination can end up being lost throughout our struggles of balancing schoolwork, jobs, family, and being different from our peers. Without this drive, students can end up wondering where they fit into the grand scheme of college and if it’s even the right decision for them.

Undergraduate research, however, can be an unlikely remedy for many of these problems that students face. When students are involved in research, they are able to apply what they learn in class, develop skills for their future careers, and, best of all, find a passion. Students that do research in undergrad are more likely to continue on in their education to Ph.D.’s and M.D.’s because they are able to experience what a future as a grad student could be and find confidence in themselves to do that.  Research opens doors for students, not just in their fields of interest, but also within themselves by instilling confidence and affirming that they do have a place in higher education and are seen as valuable here. Encouraging our students of color to do research can help them to find comfort in their education again and fortify their ambition to thrive in college.

In my second year of college, I was considering taking a semester off because I felt misplaced here in school. I began to question if college was worth the sacrifice of leaving my family behind in the poverty I was trying to escape and if I was even capable of doing well in school to get my degree. Then, I decided to start doing research because of my love of science, and I am so glad I did!  I finally found myself enjoying my classes more because I could apply them to the work I do in the lab, and I met my wonderful mentor who has changed my outlook on myself as a scientist. I discovered that I am actually good at something I am passionate about, and it has invigorated the drive I had when I was trying to get into college.  

Other students such as Caitlin Mickles, an Immunology and Medical Microbiology junior and RAP participant, also can attest to the magic of research:

Caitlin Mickles, an Immunology and Medical Microbiology junior

Caitlin Mickles, a junior in Immunology and Medical Microbiology

“Research has definitely made me more confident in school. Knowing that I can perform well in a lab with professional colleagues reassures me that I have the abilities to potentially do these things in the future. Although I have support from friends and family, I still face lots of negativity on the daily basis that sometimes causes me to lose confidence. Research has given me that extra push to keep going.”

Caitlin previously only saw her career in the medical field as a physician, but now she is considering becoming a researcher in immunology. She is now working in NIOSH and becoming a PCR whiz. The passion of her colleagues in the lab have inspired her to continue in  research, and they have created a welcoming environment for her in the lab to excel in her work and to learn as much as possible.

Kassandra Colón Cisneros
Kassandra Colón Cisneros, a junior researching Latinx identity formation

Another student excelling in research, Kassandra Colón Cisneros, is a junior triple majoring in Latin American Studies, Geography and Women’s and Gender Studies. She published her paper, "La Negra Tiene Tumbao: Multimodal Resistance Strategies of Afro-Latinxs and Other Queer Constructions” in 2017, and is a leader for her community as a Latina, first-generation college student. She is working to graduate early and go on to graduate school for Latin American studies. 

According to Cisneros, “Research provided me the opportunity to explore and discover how I am Puerto Rican and Mexican. If it wasn’t for research, I wouldn’t be able to understand my identity outside of the experiential.”

Research is able to empower students of color to rise above the discomfort and adversity experienced at school in ways that courses cannot.  It is a gateway to a future of black and brown scholars changing the world.