Black and Asian STEM students feel pressure to ‘work twice as hard’ to achieve amid racial stereotypes

Black and Asian undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs experience negative impacts on physical and emotional health because of stereotypes about their ability, according to a new report funded by the National Science Foundation. The researchers found that Black students feel labeled as “intellectually inferior” and expected to fail, while Asian students feel labeled as “intellectually superior” and pressured to achieve, writes Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

“This research reveals the collective subjugation of these students, regardless of whether they are judged as highly competent or less than capable,” writes report author Ebony O. McGee, associate professor of diversity and urban schooling in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University. “Educators and researchers have much to gain from examining both the unique and shared forms of racialization of the two racial groups—and both groups have much to learn from each other.”

‘Racialized labeling’ negatively affects student health

Both student groups “feel like they have to work twice as hard,” McGee told Diverse Issues in Higher Education. In her interviews with 61 Black and Asian STEM students from six postsecondary schools across the country, McGee found that navigating stereotypes took a toll on emotional and physical well-being.

During interviews, an Asian student reported being called an “Asian fail” when he received an 89 on an assignment, leading him to become “consumed with thoughts of failure” as he prepared for his next exam; he ended up hospitalized for exhaustion and dehydration. Meanwhile, a Black student told McGee that his academic success was accompanied by accusations of cheating or labels of exceptionalism, such as “Black genius.”

“Racialized labels foster marginalization, which can have negative effects on the body and the mind,” McGee writes. “[B]oth of these racial groups endure emotional distress because each responds with an unrelenting motivation to succeed that imposes significant costs.”

“I can’t win,” said one Black study participant. “If I don’t study, I’m just proving to the class that I shouldn’t be here. If I do study — and when we study, we succeed — I get the highest grade in the class and I’m either one of two things: a cheater or a genius. Nobody acknowledges my hard work and my right to be there, whether I get some good grades or fail.”

Potential for STEM innovation at minority-serving institutions

The NSF findings come on the heels of a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report that highlights minority-serving institutions (MSIs) as a promising and underused resource for increasing the number of people in STEM careers. According to Campus Technology, historically Black colleges and universities, Tribal colleges and universities, and Hispanic serving institutions already account for almost 30 percent of total undergraduates and a fifth of STEM bachelor’s degree holders; the report authors contend that these underfunded institutions could have an even bigger impact with greater investment and attention.

Based on a literature and data review, along with visits to nine MSIs, the researchers developed a set of strategies to further improve STEM education and workforce preparation. These strategies emphasized leadership, funding, and student support programs, such as summer bridge programs, supplemental instruction, and mentorships.

“MSIs have been successful in providing a multifaceted return on investment for students, communities and the STEM workforce,” the report states. “With targeted funding, attention and support, [MSIs] can contribute much more.”

How Georgetown supports underserved students in the sciences

Georgetown’s Regents Science Scholars Program seeks to address the critical shortage of underserved and first-generation college students who successfully complete degrees in the sciences. The program combines in-person instruction and mentoring with online technologies that facilitate student engagement and understanding in fluid ways, especially across holiday breaks and summers. By providing more support, more structure, and more opportunities for these students, the program aims to create an equitable scientific community in which all scientists feel welcomed and valued. Learn more about the Regents Science Scholars Program.

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