Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

"Ain't I a Woman, Too?": Tracing the Experiences of African American Women in Graduate School

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

"Ain't I a Woman, Too?": Tracing the Experiences of African American Women in Graduate School

Article excerpt

A group of African American women who had completed or were seeking graduate degrees in education over a 10-year period participated in a study to assess their experiences. Responses were gathered by the use of two surveys mailed to participants followed by focus groups. Responses from 50 African American women were gathered through the surveys and 30 of those respondents participated in the focus groups. The women talked about their motivation and goals for graduate school, professional experiences, sources of encouragement and discouragement, personal relationships, interactions with faculty, and self-esteem.

"America needs more Black graduate students," declared Julianne Malveaux (1996, p. 44) in Black Issues in Higher Education. Most faculty and students would agree that increasing the number of African Americans with graduate degrees is a worthy goal. However, relatively little is known about the experiences of African American students currently in graduate school. Understanding the obstacles and challenges faced by these students would certainly help to increase the number of African Americans entering graduate school in the future.

What is known is that the total number of African American students in higher education, and in graduate school in particular, is much lower than the number of White students. A closer examination of the data also finds that African American women earn far more undergraduate and graduate degrees than do African American men (National Center for Educational Statistics [NCES], 2001). This outcome is, in part, a reflection of the fact that many African American men do not get to college, much less to graduate school.

The recruitment of more African Americans to graduate school, as Malveaux (1996) suggests, is not enough. The real goal should be to increase the number of African Americans who complete a graduate degree. Student success in higher education is determined by an earned degree, not just admission. Therefore, increasing the number of African Americans in graduate school is only a partial goal. More African Americans must not only be admitted to graduate school but complete a graduate degree to be truly successful.

To achieve the goal of increasing the number of African Americans with graduate degrees, we must have a better understanding of the environment graduate education presents to African American students. Better information and increased understanding of the experiences of current African American students are critical first steps towards providing better assistance and support to recruit and retain increased numbers of African American graduate students in the future. It is also safe to assume that any positive changes in the graduate school environment that benefit African American students will also improve the graduate experience for other students, regardless of race.

Purpose of the Study

This study was an attempt to examine the experiences of African American students in graduate school. In looking at the recent trends in African American participation in graduate study, it became quickly apparent that far more women enroll in graduate studies than do men (NCES, 2001). Of those women in graduate school, it was also clear that the largest proportion pursue graduate degrees in education. As a result, this study sought to examine the experiences of a group of African American women who were pursuing graduate degrees in education. By gaining a better understanding of the experiences of current students, it is hoped that inherent barriers and obstacles to graduate study might be mitigated and, in turn, more African American students will be encouraged to pursue graduate study in the future. Therefore, this study examined, in depth, the experiences of a group of African American women who earned or were pursuing graduate degrees in education.

BACKGROUND FOR THE STUDY

To be admitted to a graduate degree program, students must meet certain scores on standardized exams, present undergraduate grades at or above a predetermined level, and provide letters of recommendation from former faculty or supervisors. …

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