Written by Maya Foster
Ever since I was young, I had a genuine interest in learning and school — exploring the natural world with my sister, reading various books, and writing down my crazy imagine in the form of stories. My interests eventually encouraged me to challenge myself with accelerated/advanced placement courses throughout middle school and high school. My parents also pushed me to participate in extracurriculars such as Academic Games and Science Olympiad to further my academic career.
Often in these classes, I would be the only African-American. Also, the classes were full of hardcore, intellectually gifted students. Needless to say, I was intimidated and uncomfortable. But I grew to accept the situation because I was determined to combat the generalizations stereotypes branded on African-American females. I always strove to perform my best.
At first, it was somewhat surprising to others about my academic performances because I was one of the few African-Americans who tried and pushed themselves in school. I felt great about being able to represent my race in a positive light and demonstrate that we are capable of performing just as well academically. However, this outlook put a lot of pressure on me. I felt like I had to work ten times as hard as my non-African-American counterparts to gain the same recognition as they did with each other. I joined many sciences and academic related clubs and started to get a friend crowd of mostly Asian and White students. I was eventually accepted into their group and felt accomplished. But I didn’t feel happy. There was still a part of me that felt like I was alone and not connected with these intense academically- inclined students. I felt like I wasn’t living up to their high standards, and I felt even worse because of the color of my skin.
At a point during the middle of my sophomore year, I began to develop a negative outlook on life. I was taking extremely hard classes, and it seemed like my efforts to perform well in them we’re going nowhere. I felt like a failure and stupid. And in my eyes, my race made the situation worse. As a result, I would become furious and blame myself and my race. Every time I would do worse than a friend in these classes, I would become embarrassed. I would always think, please don’t judge me. I tried my best to not reach out for help because I was afraid to ask for fear that the students in my classes would judge because I was a “Black wannabe nerd” that couldn’t understand something a “basic” concept to them (though they never verbally expressed to me, it was all my internal thoughts). So I tried to teach myself, which resulted in further internal isolation from my classmates. It became apparent that I needed someone to talk to, but I was too afraid. I wanted to do live up to their standards, but I just wasn’t quite there. I felt lost and alone.
There was a point in time where I had decided to give up altogether and drop down to regular classes. But a talk with my mother stopped me. She told me about her struggles as a Black female in rigorous courses at MIT and how she persevered. She’s told that it was normal to feel this way and don’t let my situation take away from my determination and intellectual abilities. This gave me some courage, and I applied for a STEM summer program there the latter half of my junior year of high school.
The program was called MOSTEC (MIT Online Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Community). It was a science, technology, engineering, and math program for minority students. At the camp, I was able to meet other minority students who also shared a deep passion for doing well and challenging themselves in rigorous courses. I fell in love with the people there and the entire atmosphere. It was the first time that I felt comfortable and free. I wasn’t bound by the pressure to do well at school solely to combat stereotypes. I was exploring my interests and having intellectual conversations with others like me. It was unbelievable. Leaving that program was like a breath of fresh air. I had an entirely different outlook on life. I decided that I wanted to continue to pursue my passions and no longer be ashamed of being a Black female who wanted to do well. I was going to stop the constant negative thoughts that plagued my mind.
My new outlook helped to realize that all my internal struggles were a result of the generalizations society placed on African-Americans. I let that take over my life and dictate how I behaved. I beat up myself when I felt like I was succumbing to them. Now, I realize how clueless I was. It doesn’t matter what others think of me. All that matters is what I am doing for myself and that I am actually embracing who I am as a person. Color shouldn’t be a factor that inhibits me from comfortably pursuing my dreams. This change in mindset has allowed me to direct my passions in science by introducing the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) in the form of a day program as a service project for minority students.
In closing, I’m reminding myself and others like me not to feel discouraged over the color of your skin and actually embrace who you are. I am Black, I am female, and I love to challenge myself. And that, in the grand scheme of things, is all that matters.
Maya Foster is an undergraduate freshman student at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. Hailing from Michigan, Maya likes to write short stories for fun and is interested in science. She is eager to share her experiences as a young Black female aspiring scientist.