Four Perspectives from Black Scholars and Professionals on Race and Opportunity in the Fellowship Realm

Jun 25, 2020
Clockwise, starting with top left: Nakia Edmond, KJ, James Ponzo (II), and Maya Bullock

By Jenny Han Simon

The current events that have highlighted the issues of systematic racism, police brutality, racism, prejudice, and discrimination against Black people within the United States and around the world are not independent of the realm of fellowships and scholarships. There are challenges Black applicants, scholars, and working professionals will face that are particular to their race and identity; they are challenges that those of another race will not experience or perhaps understand. 

Here are honest answers and opinions from four Black Americans about their experiences within professional and academic environments, traveling and living abroad, and shaping their professional and personal ambitions. They are recipients of prestigious scholarships and fellowships, successful academics, and active duty military.

Nakia Edmond is a 24-year-old Black university lecturer and was a participant in the 2018 Critical Language Scholarship. Nakia is a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion in the field of international education and cultural exchange.

KJ is an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician currently serving as a Security Guard Detachment Commander for the United States Marine Corps. He has been serving for 11 years as an active duty Marine and is currently in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in homeland security.

James Ponzo (II) is a doctoral candidate and instructor at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), who will be an Assistant Professor beginning in the fall of 2020. His major research area is African American Studies and his in-progress dissertation focuses on the works of James Baldwin.

Maya Bullock graduated from Ohio State University in 2020 with a BA in international studies with a focus on East Asian studies. She was a participant of the 2018 Critical Language Scholarship, and actively works to strengthen mutual understanding and diplomatic relations domestically and internationally.

1. In what ways has your race shaped and impacted your ambitions—professional or otherwise—and how you went about achieving them?

Nakia:Being Black forced me to be more ambitious in my pursuit of success because I was determined not to be associated with the common stereotypes of Black people. Being lazy and playing the victim of racism was not something I wanted to embrace. Also, I held onto my personal mantra: ‘Make yourself available and opportunity will come.’ I made myself available, volunteering, interning, and practicing whatever I was doing. Because of this, people were willing to give me their time and special opportunities because I gained their trust and respect through my work ethic.” 

KJ: “Growing up in Haiti poor and dark-skinned, issues regarding class and colorism were more prevalent in the first part of my life. There was so much frustration and so much I felt like I couldn’t do, but it made me more ambitious to understand society and find out where my place was. It was a completely different dynamic regarding race when I moved to Atlanta. In the military, there were differences in how people of different races would act and also in the types of jobs they ended up doing. I was determined to do what I wanted, even if it was a job that White people tended to do. Sometimes, I was one of a few or the only Black Marine in my squad. I realized that it was my individual contribution that defined me in others’ eyes.”

2. What expectations did you have for your program/job going into it? How did those expectations compare to what you actually experienced? How and when did you find yourself changing your expectations?

KJ: “When you see me, you see black; there’s no getting around seeing color. There are definitely preconceptions when you see me or hear me speak, and people will start to build an image in their head of who they think I am. But over time, I think people get to know me better, and I’ve never felt that my color stopped me from getting me an opportunity I rightfully deserved. I’ve definitely encountered people with views that would not be tolerated today, but those people never stopped me from advancing in my own career path.”

James: “When I became a TA/Ph.D. Candidate, I believe I had a very accurate understanding of what it would entail. One of the major challenges was understanding and adjusting to the life of the Black academic. Black people and other people of color not only have to complete their own program requirements, but they also see how they can assist and join organizations on campus to combat racism and inequality, and become advisors to undergraduate groups. I don’t believe I ever altered my expectations.”

3. How do you believe your race influenced the way your advisors, teachers, colleagues, and others in your cohort treated you? 

Nakia: “My Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) cohort had about 15 people—mostly female, and predominately White and Asian with only two black students. Although I was a part of the minority demographic, my peers and teachers still pushed me to improve and be confident. They were very mindful of my feelings about being Black in China. One night, all of the students went to a bar that had a strange painting of nude Africans on the side of the building; it could have been a bit racist, but I was not sure. My friend asked me and a fellow Black student if we were okay with going into the place since we could have gone to another bar nearby. Not seeing any issue at the time, we declined and went in anyway and actually had a great time. I just remember that night being awesome because my friends stopped to ask if we were comfortable in a questionable place.”

James: “My cohort for my MA program was predominantly white, but I don’t believe any of the advisors or teachers treated me differently based on my ethnicity. What’s really great being a member of a department that is progressive and actually teaches about issues of inequality, as well as the transnational nature of these experiences, is that most of the time you have faculty and students who are knowledgeable and sensitive to these topics and can relate to these experiences. I believe I flourished as a result of being in this type of environment with like-minded individuals who were also asking questions about our society, while at the same time putting in the work to become knowledgeable and capable academics.”

4. Abroad, what differences have you noticed between your experiences and those of your non-Black colleagues and program participants? 

Nakia: “I was always mindful of how I acted in public with my friends in China. I did not want to give off any negative perceptions that could be deemed unacceptable by Chinese standards. I felt my non-Black counterparts didn’t have to worry as much as I did, even though they were foreigners like me. I didn’t know of any racial issues in China regarding Black people at the time and did not want to be the first example. Due to racial tensions in the US, I was determined to show myself as friendly and open to the Chinese, letting them touch my braided hair and take pictures with me to ease their potential discomfort at the expense of my own comfort some days. But I understand that they were just curious due to the lack of Black foreigners in the area we were in.”

Maya: “In 2018, I lived in Changchun, China through the CLS program. China is a mostly homogenous country and has a long history of colorism. As a foreigner not of East Asian descent, it was common to receive stares and to be asked for photos. However, as an African American, my experience was unique in that I would hear people say that I was ‘surprisingly pretty for being Black.’ I would hear older people whisper the n-word in Chinese, or I would have to argue with people who said that I wasn’t American because of my skin color. These situations were not surprising, and I know that they will happen again. Instead of discouraging me, it encourages me to promote awareness and cultural competence among those who have very little exposure.”

5. On a larger scale, how can programs that offer fellowships and scholarships, and higher education institutions be better when it comes to promoting racial equality, inclusivity, diversity, and supporting its Black participants? 

KJ: “The military is this place where people from all walks of life come together, but we work exceptionally well together. Transparency is the most important thing for those in power to maintain in regard to all issues. There’s a limit to diversity workshops and sensitivity training because, at the end of the day, we all know what’s good behavior and what’s bad behavior. Those resources could be better used to maintain transparency, bringing issues to the surface and resolving them, and holding people accountable for their actions.”

Maya: “I believe programs should indicate their intentions for including a diverse population of candidates and to include testimonials from people of color who had successful experiences. Additionally, active involvement or partnership with other organizations that promote racial equality, inclusivity, black participants, etc. would really make a difference.”

James: “Speaking from experience, institutions of higher learning can: 1) listen to and work with Black students on campus when it comes to addressing these issues; 2) make sure that their statements and apparent goals on things like diversity, inclusion, and equality, are actually reflected in the actions that they take; and 3) always remember that their programs in the Humanities have educated students about diverse experiences of all people, and receiving testimonies regularly from students who are not majors, but express how much the courses they took impacted their lives.”

6. On the individual level, how can non-Black and Black program participants, faculty, and advisors better promote these things? 

KJ: “Transparency on an individual level is important. Listening to people and trying to understand their viewpoint can help people get along better. You won’t be able to change everybody’s mind, though. I’d say I influence the opinion of maybe 40% of the people I talk to, but I can’t do anything about the rest of them.”

Maya: “I believe the most important thing individuals can do is transparently demonstrate their support for POC rights and movements. Additionally, these individuals should take the time to be actively aware of what is happening in regards to race and equality in the world and share this knowledge with others.”

7. What advice do you have for Black people entering the realms of higher education, academia, international travel, diplomacy, and the competitive world of scholarships and fellowships?

Nakia:Everyone comes from a different walk of life and you may feel that they are in a completely different league than you. But the important thing is to never give up and never forgo good opportunities because of your insecurities and doubts. Continue to push forward no matter what because too many people have fought and died for you to have the opportunity to chase your dreams.”

KJ:Having thick skin is very important. It doesn’t make you immune to adversity, prejudice, and bigotry, but it lets you move through it easier in order to reach your objective. Never have a chip on your shoulder; starting with the idea that you are equal and addressing inequality when it occurs is more productive. Be a good listener and be observant, because as you move up the ladder, you meet people who are fundamentally different from you in many ways. It’s hard to navigate adversity if you go into a situation defensive and assuming the worst. You can’t be the same thing you’re trying to defeat.” 

Maya: “Be courageous and be proud of your skin and culture. There are so many obstacles that our people face. It is disheartening and painful to hear and see the hate others give us, but instead of letting the pain stop you, use it to fuel your desire to succeed. You have the ability to impact and educate the current environment you’re in and to support your younger Black brothers and sisters.”

James: “Never give up and always bet on yourself to succeed. Yes, entering this realm appears daunting initially, and at times it really is, but if you’re passionate about your field, about learning, and then using your knowledge and understanding to impact the world, you’ll be fine. Although you are going to live, work, study, research, and write through some tough moments in history—such as the one we’re currently in—keep in mind that this also confirms how much society still needs teachers like us to share our expertise, as it pertains to what is taking place in society.”

Jenny Han Simon currently lives in New York City. She was a Fulbright ETA in Mongolia (2019-2020) and a participant of the Critical Language Scholarship (2018). She graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2019 with a BA in English and Linguistics.

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