For black grad students in Boston, stay or go?
A push to retain the ‘talented tenth’
SHANNON FAIRLEY-PITTMAN calls it “the conversation.” It’s the discussion he regularly has with other black graduate students in Boston about whether they’ll stay in the area after completing their degree because of the great opportunities in the region, or head somewhere else where they sense a more welcoming vibe.
Boston has a lot to offer professionally, said Fairley-Pittman, a Bridgeport, Connecticut, native who is working on a doctorate in education at Northeastern University, but that isn’t the only thing to consider. “Is it for us? Do we feel connected?” he said, running through the questions that invariably come up when he talks with other black grad students.
Finding that sense of connection isn’t always easy, he said, and the question for blacks who come to Boston for graduate study often comes down to whether they develop those ties before they write-off the city and decide to just focus on finishing their degree and heading elsewhere.
Trying to tip the scale toward more black grad students staying in Boston is what led Austin Ashe, who’s getting his PhD in higher education at UMass Boston, and a group of fellow grad students to host a reception last week attended by about 100 black graduate students. “We have all these amazing students here tonight,” Ashe said, after delivering opening remarks to the gathering at the UMass Club in downtown Boston. “They get their degrees, and then they leave.”
The stain of racism and hostility toward blacks, embedded nationally during the school busing battles of the 1970s, has not been easy for the city to shed. Meanwhile, African-Americans and other minorities have been largely absent from business boardrooms and important political offices, a situation that recently began showing a few signs of changing.
At the ground level, said Ashe, it’s important simply for black graduate students to feel part of something broader than their studies. “This function, and hopefully future functions like it, will serve as a kind of bridge where people can feel connected into the Boston community,” Ashe said of the gathering.
The hors d’oeuvres being circulated in the room were popular, but the main course was the conversation and networking on what was, Ashe noted, the last day of Black History Month.
Robert Johnson, the chancellor of UMass Dartmouth, made a pitch to the crowd to look at opportunities to contribute in Massachusetts after getting their degrees. “You represent W.E.B. DuBois’s ‘talented tenth,’” he said, invoking the term used by the early 20th century black leader – and Great Barrington native – to describe the 10 percent of the black population poised to serve as its leadership class. Johnson showed up at the event with deans from UMass Dartmouth as well as the campus’s chief HR recruiter.
“People say that we can’t find people of color to be faculty and staff,” said Johnson. “We have it all right here.”
Katherine Newman, the interim chancellor at UMass Boston, echoed his comments and said there are tremendous opportunities today for blacks with advanced degrees. “I just want to give you one message,” she said. “This is a great time to be you. We are all gearing up to try and make sure that our faculties represent the communities and people who occupy our world around us.”
“There is an opportunity for UMass to think about itself beyond UMass students,” said Paris Jeffries, who is also in the PhD program in education at UMass Boston and is member of the university’s board of trustees. “If you can ground people in community by having them meet with folks who are from the community and create another avenue for them to be part of the city, then they have more reason to be here besides going to whatever university they’re going to.”
That’s what drew Vannessa Harrison to the reception. Harrison, who is in the second year of a doctoral program at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, did her undergraduate studies at Emory University in Atlanta, an hour north of where she grew up in Georgia. She went on to get a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York City before arriving in Boston.
“This is very important for me in making me feel comfortable and connected to the city,” said Harrison, who also attended last year’s gathering.
She said there’s a fair amount of diversity when she’s on campus, but otherwise it’s a very different scene than the one she was accustomed to in Atlanta and New York. “I step outside of Harvard’s campus or MIT’s campus and I’m, like, where are all the black people?” she said.
Harrison said she was surprised at how segregated Boston feels. “I just wish that the city were more integrated,” she said. “Being in New York City – it’s very connected and people of all races are together.”
“Boston has its history,” said Ashe, who grew up in West Haven, Connecticut. “Boston is or was, or however you want to frame it, not the most culturally diverse environment. I think it’s getting better. I think there’s a shift. It’s a slow shift, but I think it’s a shift.”
Discussions are taking place about how to create a more permanent structure, based in the UMass system, to support ongoing efforts to retain black doctoral candidates in the state after they complete their degrees. We want to have “something a little more formal so it continues into the future,” UMass president Marty Meehan told the gathering.
Paris Jeffries said that could include regular receptions like the two that have been held, a speakers series, or joint recruitment events sponsored by area universities.Meanwhile, organizers are planning for a similar reception in the spring at Boston University, part of the conscious effort to have the initiative extend beyond the UMass system to the various campuses in the area.
Harrison said she’s likely to end up back in New York City, where she previously worked for Pfizer, after completing her degree. “But if there are opportunities here, then I will stay,” she said, pointing to the region’s vibrant biopharma industry, the field she plans to work in. “Boston’s growing on me.”