A Fish in Shark Infested Waters

Campus, to me, is like a small town where you speak to others you pass. I speak to every face I see if I make eye contact. Sometimes they respond. Sometimes they smile. Sometimes they look right through me. I seek familiar, friendly faces. I seek faces that without saying the words, say “I see you and I feel you.” Then a face appears and sometimes, it looks like me and other times, it looks nothing like what I thought it would look like. I am a fish. I am a fish swimming in shark infested waters. Sometimes there are schools of like minded fish. Sometimes, there are sharks. Sometimes what looks like a fish can act like a shark. Sometimes what looks like a shark is just a big fish!

As an administrator at an Ivy League institution, I swim in the deep end of the ocean. I LOVE to swim. No, that’s not true. I LOVE to relax in the water and float around not worried about anything. There are other fish frolicking in the ocean. We’re having fun. We’re learning, we’re growing, expanding our territory. I assume there are no predators around to harm me. Most people don’t want to swim with sharks! Occasionally, however, I see the glint of shark teeth in a meeting and I am reminded of where I am. I am reminded that there are schools of fish who will not welcome me. There are predators who will harm me. There are even fish like me that will sacrifice me for their cause.

Being black and a woman and an academic is a metaphysical dilemma. — Ntozake Shange (2015)

We all have multiple identities with multiple benefits and multiple challenges. There isn’t a critical mass of Black and Brown people, let alone, Black women in academia.  “In fall 2015, of all full-time faculty at degree-granting post-secondary institutions, 42 percent were White males, 35 percent were White females, 6 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander males, 4 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander females, 3 percent each were Black females and Black males, and 2 percent each were Hispanic males and Hispanic females” (https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_csc.asp). Because of the scarcity of others who look like us, because Black women continue to “face questions of intelligence, competence, and legitimacy” (http://digitalcommons.uncfsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1013&context=jri), It can often feel like we are swimming in shark infested waters. It is important that we seek alliances and support not only from those who look like us but from those with whom we can find common ground.

So how do you survive in the shark infested waters in academia? Here are some tips

  1. Do your research! – Don’t just dive in without knowing what’s in the water. Do your homework. Where can you go to find people with similar interest to yours? Are there groups on campus that offer support/advice to newbies? On my campus, I quickly found a women of color group. The women I met there helped me to navigate the waters and to avoid any situations that may have harmed me. Which brings me to number 2.
  2. Use the buddy system. – Everything is better when you have someone to share it with who understands your experience. Also, it is never a bad thing to have another set of eyes to watch your back. When I first started teaching, I found another professor who taught the class. We compared notes, shared ideas, and discussed what worked and what didn’t work. We both grew as a result!
  3. Ask questions! – Find a diver experienced and familiar with the water you are diving into and seek their advice. In academia, we call this person a mentor. A mentor is a person who has an interest in your career and professional development. A “guide on the side” who can help you chart your path to success. Remember your mentor doesn’t have to be a fish like you! Ask them questions. Seek their advice. Your mentor has survived the waters. It will be helpful to know how they did it!
  4. Sharpen your teeth. – Sharks rarely attack without warning. Learn and recognize warning signs. Don’t be afraid to show your teeth! Sometimes letting a shark know that you can be a formidable opponent will ward off a full attack.
  5. Jump in! – Swimming with sharks cannot all be learned by reading. You have to jump in! You must practice swimming to develop your skill! You have to be in meetings, join committees, and find a school of fish to swim with. In short time, you will be the buddy and the mentor to someone else new to the shark infested waters of academia.

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