A Change Is Gonna Come

The vile history of racial injustice in America has unveiled itself once more through the stories of police brutality and protests currently flooding the news and social media. As an African American woman and PhD student, this is something that has an impact on my life in many ways. I know that a change is gonna come, but for underrepresented students in the geosciences it hasn’t in 40 years.

chicago ferry
On a Chicago Ferry before the Black Women’s Expo.

I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Environmental Engineering, a Master’s of Science in Environment & Resources, and I currently conduct research in Atmospheric Science while working towards a PhD in Freshwater & Marine Science in Wisconsin. As you can probably guess, getting to this point hasn’t exactly been a breeze. On my way to getting here, people would try to dissuade me from pursuing a higher degree. In fact some of my former mentors appeared shell-shocked or angry when I told them the good news that I was going to grad school! These were the people who I thought would be most excited to see me progressing in my education. It was like they were rooting for me, but only so long as I stayed where they expected me to be.

As a person of color in academia you won’t always experience up-front racism. Instead, you’ll get the “are you lost?” while in your own work building from white researchers who think you don’t belong. Or you’ll get the dreaded “I don’t think I can sign off on that” from a mentor who chose to be less involved in your project when it’s the very last day of the semester, and you need to get credits for your work or even a signature on a defense warrant. You’ll find out there was an informal gathering at the bar every other week that everyone except you knew about. A coworker will insinuate you only got an award because you’re [insert minority group here]. Stories like these are plenty for Black people in academia.

At the Madison Vilas Zoo.

Let’s take a look at who gets doctorate degrees in the three main geoscience subdisciplines, which are (1) Atmospheric Science and Meteorology (2) Geological and Earth Sciences and (3) Ocean/Marine Sciences. If you lump all underrepresented students into a singular category (American Indian or Alaska Native, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx), it might look as though the number of doctorates going to those students took a massive leap from 2000 – 2015. Although Hispanic and Latinx students have had improved representation since 1990, much of this is because the group now makes up a more substantial percentage of the US population (157% larger). The inequity of PhD’s going to people of color still stands, with representation of underrepresented students seeing little change in the last 40 years, as highlighted in the article “No progress on diversity in 40 years” linked below.

“In 2016, only 6% of geoscience doctorates awarded to US citizens and permanent
residents went to students from underrepresented minorities, a group who made up 31% of the US population that year.” – Bernard & Cooperdock, in Nature Geoscience

It is important to highlight the lack of intersectionality in the geosciences as well. Intersectionality is the idea that some people are impacted by more than one discriminating factor – such as a PhD candidate who is both black and a woman like myself. Finding a black woman in the geosciences in exceptionally difficult. Between 1973 and 2016, less than 100 doctorates were awarded to Black women in all three geoscience subdisciplines put together.

Once the doctorate is earned, the struggle for inequality continues as black faculty are denied tenure or discriminated against by colleagues. You can read Black people’s stories by searching for the #BlackintheIvory hashtag online.

As American singer Sam Cooke serenaded amidst the Civil Rights Movement, it’s been a long time comin, but I know a change is gonna come. I hope this blog post was eye-opening for you and motivates you to be the change. For a list of Black civil rights causes to donate to, click here: https://linktr.ee/dragher

As always, Thanks for reading.

5 responses to “A Change Is Gonna Come”

  1. Not surprised about your experiences of systemic racism, Jess. Glad you are a leader in such an important field though saddened that such reality is so prevalent in the 21st century, not just in USA but throughout the world. Time for this to become a terrible footnote of history. Cheers to you. keep up the good earth.

    Bruce – a solar pioneer and builder from North Vancouver Island

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bruce, Thanks so much for your kind words! The good news is that I still got to where I am today, and because of that I have a voice and will use it to make things better.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Joyce Nowaczewski Avatar
    Joyce Nowaczewski

    As one of the few women in the Electrical Engineering courses, I was definitely discriminated against. One ‘professor ‘, told me his wife was very satisfied being a secretary. At one point, as tests were returned, I looked at the scores…the white males had high score, the women bad, and the black male failed terribly…I asked everyone to look over their papers….the scoring was ridiculous…a wrong answer is a wrong answer… 2+2 does NOT equal 7… BUT… it was 2 points off for the White men, 25 points off for the women, actually 40 points off for a younger ‘girl’, and 45 points for the black male… I took these all to the Dean…after that, each question, section HAD to have a maximum value. Although I am not black, I understand what discrimination is. I fought to get my degree. Only one other woman hung in to get hers… it was the 80’s, but it still happens today,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your insight, Joyce. I think you bring up the point that a number of people face discrimination in one way or another throughout life (sexism, antisemitism, etc.) based on some uncontrollable factor. It’s difficult to understand why people who have been treated unfairly (but may not necessarily understand racism from the viewpoint of a Black person in America) ignore or perpetuate discrimination through various forms such as racism, much like your professor who used his power to further divide and punish people based on gender, age, and race, or a combination of these identities. My guess is, it probably has to do with systematic barriers to overcoming inequality and a simple lack of empathy. However it looks like there are many people who are fed up with these barriers and are making strides towards change.


  3. […] Wisconsin wetlands and wetland creatures. I wrote a post that acted as a window into my life as an African American woman pursuing a PhD in a STEM field in the United States and shared relevant statistics. I learned about my own chances […]


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