Everyone keeps asking why there aren’t more Black STEM students and professionals. But few are discussing the difficulties faced by first-generation Black students.

I am not shy about my experiences as an engineering student at the University of Southern California and STEM professional in Orange County, California. To put it lightly, it wasn’t fun. Actually, it was horrible. That’s why all of these articles asking why there aren’t more Black coders or more Black scientists or more Black students in STEM majors irritate me to no end. The focus on Black and STEM students and professionals and their invisibility is a much more nuanced conversation than many of these articles let on.

The most recent article I read on this subject was posted on TakePart last week. In it, the author, Liz Dwyer, outlines the results of a new study from Georgetown University which found that “African Americans are concentrated in low paying jobs” like early childhood development, education, and other “caring” professions like social work.

Their primary focus in the report was how the choice of major has a direct impact on one’s wage-earning abilities over a lifetime. Specifically, the authors note, “African Americans who earned a Bachelor’s degree in a STEM related major, such as architecture or engineering, can earn as much as 50 percent more than African Americans who earned a Bachelor’s degree in art or psychology and social work.”

While the article and study briefly highlighted how institutional racism and unequal access to STEM degrees at certain four-year institutions are deterrents to enrollment in STEM programs and professions, they gloss over how influential these factors might be for the average Black student or professional. Another factor they fail to highlight is the unique difficulty of being a first-generation Black college student.

Research shows that first-generation students are disproportionately Hispanic and African-American. This means that, even though students of color are underrepresented in higher education overall, they are overrepresented among those who are the first in their families to gain entry into academic institutions. There are a number of ways this can affect the behaviors and educational outcomes of Black students and professionals.

I am a first-generation Black college student. Not only did I come from a struggling school district and little economic means, I had no one in my immediate family and very few in my extended family to help me through the college application and decision process. While I was lucky enough to have an engineering magnet program in high school to pique my interest in STEM early on, once in college, I struggled to maintain my grades, understand what was expected of me, and adjust to the demands of college life let alone the STEM world. I was a year behind my colleagues in my freshman year. All of this meant more stress, more isolation, more classes, more money, and more time to graduate.

The fact is, Black, first-generation college students often struggle the most with higher dropout rates because of the difficulty of navigating institutions of higher education. Choosing a more difficult (or discriminatory) major likely only compounds those risks and stressors given that it could take more than four years to get a degree, among other things.

After graduation, economic conditions might not improve for most Black, first-generation students. In my case, I was able to land a well-paying corporate job in STEM fields but struggled to pay back the school loans I had accumulated over five years in school. Not only that, other large purchases like cars, homes, and vacations, had to be delayed. I had to deal with these financial concerns while carrying the burden of being the only Black person on my team, a fact that resulted in numerous experiences of racism and exclusion at work.

According to a 2015 Gallup and Purdue University survey of 30,000 college graduates, my story isn’t unique. Many Black and first-generation students struggle with debt after college.

Summarizing these data, USNews reports that, “Overall, 35 percent of recent graduates took out loans totaling more than $25,000, which the survey notes is the level at which debt burden appears to have a more serious impact on graduates’ lives. Importantly, though, that percentage rose to half for recent black alumni and to 42 percent among first-generation college students.” While many students are impacted by debt after college, it is the intersection of being Black and first-gen that presents an especially tough road for many graduates.

Black, first-generation students must consider how choosing a major in STEM fields might delay their economic mobility in the future. While there may be potential to earn more money in the long-run, a lack of financial stability after graduation, the needs of their family back home, and the stress of navigating it all could make STEM programs seem riskier than fields like social work and education.

This isn’t to say that every Black student in higher education is a first-generation student. It also isn’t to suggest that every Black student in college starts out behind their peers. However, this does suggest that more complexity lies beyond the veil of Blacks in STEM. And, though these surveys are meant to shed light on this very important issue, they also suffer from a flattened view of the considerations involved in how Black students decide on their majors and professions.

(Photo: Open source)