A Message from the Excel! Research Scholars Program Director

Often I am asked why it is that scholars in the Excel! Research Scholars Program (and previously the McNair Scholars Program) conduct research projects on race, ethnicity, and culture. I am fascinated by that question because while more than 50% of the scholars who have come through these programs have been STEM students, many of those students—even In STEM fields—have asked research projects that are centered on race, ethnicity and culture.

Therefore, when responding to this question I graciously offer the following responses:

  1. From an African American student: “The limited representation of race in your classroom does not make me the voice of all black people.”
  2. Stated to a woman of color: “I would have never guessed that you were a scientist.”
  3. Stated to a student of mixed race: “What are you, really?”
  4. “Check only one….” Being forced to choose male or female when completing basic forms.
  5. To an Asian student: “Wow you must be good at math, can you help me with this problem?”
  6. To a Latino student: “You didn’t sound Latino on the telephone.”
  7. To a Native American student: “You don’t look like a Native American.”

My answers reflect examples of microagressions. Microaggressions are behaviors or statements that don’t necessarily reflect malicious intent but nevertheless can inflict insult or injury and do emotional damage.

It is not uncommon for students to hear statements like this and be forced to overlook them. Students go on quietly to deal with the pain they might be experiencing as a result of what’s been said.  However, with equity and diversity becoming more of a priority on our campuses, students are responding to how such statements make them feel. Students today are demanding change.

Rendon (2006), discusses how students need to be validated in institutions of higher education that don’t reflect who they are or what they represent.  The student struggle with microagressions is one source of feedback that has helped me to see that the Excel! Program needed to give students from all academic disciplines the opportunity to carry out research in race, ethnicity and culture if they choose to. It also made me realize our program needed an additional component to help make student education more relevant for them.

My research interest explores the parallels between disadvantaged college students who were active in the Civil Rights Movement and disadvantaged college students today. One parallel is the struggle to be validated as an equal learner to one’s counterparts. Another is the critical importance of their voice. Both are necessary characteristics to motivating academic success and validating students as equal contributors and participants in the education community as well as the world.

In 2012 the Excel! Research Scholars Program added the study of the American Civil Rights Movement as an academic enrichment component. This 13-day study and tour of the American south places emphasis on the struggles and strategies of college student leaders who were active in the Movement as well as the study of many other critical events that took place to help move America forward.  Each year that we travel down south we hear from foot soldiers or those who were on the front lines of the Movement. One foot soldier who always stands out is Ms. Pamela D.C. Junior, Director of the Smith Robertson Museum in Jackson, MS. This museum, formerly the Smith Robertson School, was the first public school built for African Americans in Jackson, Mississippi. The school opened in 1894 and served the African American community until 1971. Richard Wright was among the notables to graduate from this school.  Ms. Junior talks about what it was like to be one of the first to integrate a predominantly white school with dark skin and “kinky” hair as she describes herself. She remembers vividly the pretty white girls with “porcelain skin” in her classrooms, staring at her as if she were flawed.  In an attempt to make her feel inclusive with the other members of the class her teacher once told her, “You really are pretty for a dark skin girl.” Microagressions were then as they are today.

Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) report on Teach the Movement 2014, indicates that the state of Minnesota improved its grade in 2011 from “F” to “D” in 2014, for schools’ content and ability to teach the American Civil Rights Movement at the K-12 level. SPLC’s study suggests the curriculum is missing several key areas, covering the Movement incidentally or haphazardly. Students are not learning enough and what little they may be learning is not being taught well. This insinuates students in Minnesota are beginning college with a critical deficit about American history excluding critical topics on race, ethnicity and culture. Only 3 states passed with an “A” grade and more than 34 states were at a “D” or below.

More students are conducting research around race, ethnicity, and culture because they are interested in topics that not only celebrate them but empower them to be equal learners in a society of well-meaning minds. 

The Excel! Research Scholars Program welcomes students interested in engaging research in STEM fields as well as the humanities, social sciences, and law. As students continue to engage research while maneuvering the challenges of a complex educational society infused with microagressions they will be better prepared to carry the torch representing America’s journey for justice.

Our hope through this program is that the students who participate in it will ponder more than simply the question of what do they want to do when they grow up. Rather, we hope they will ask, whose life can they positively change through the contributions that they make by helping to be the change that they want to see as an equal citizen in America today?  

-- Cynthia J. Fraction, Director, Excel! Research Scholars Program

Rendon, L.I., (2006). Reconceptualizing success for underserved students in higher education. Retrieved September 3, 2015, from https://nces.ed.gov/npec/pdf/resp_Rendon.pdf








Ms. Cynthia Fraction, Director of the Excel! Scholars Program