‘The Precious Few’ Must Press for Change
Underrepresented minorities in STEM need others like them as leaders and role models.
Opinion By Richard A. Tapia
Over the years, I have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t for underrepresented minority (URM) STEM students. I would see so many enter Rice University loving engineering, science, and mathematics, but after a period of very uncomfortable struggling, they would switch to one of the more welcoming disciplines. They would often say something like “I decided I didn’t really like math (or engineering or science) after all. It’s just not for me,” or “I’m not really cut out for it.” It is hard for minority students to ask for help. At their high schools, they’d been stars, and now—in their minds—they’re failures.
The week before Thanksgiving break is a particularly stressful period for freshmen, Once, I happened to look out the window of my office to see a Mexican-American freshman named Laurie packing her Bronco. When I went down and asked her what she was doing, she said: “I’m leaving, Dr. Tapia. I can’t do this anymore.” I was able to convince her that she could. She graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, became a research scientist at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, and came back to Rice to earn a Ph.D.
Again, just before Thanksgiving break, I encountered Chuck, another Mexican-American, as he was about to leave Rice and go home to El Paso. I persuaded him to stay. We met often. Ultimately, he graduated from Rice with a degree in chemical engineering. Last year, he sent me a letter saying that a degree from Rice was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He was now an executive with a major utilities company in El Paso.
I call underrepresented minorities in STEM the “precious few.” Middle schools and high schools are not full of URM students clamoring to become mathematicians or scientists. Even when the pool is at its largest, when they are finishing high school and beginning their university studies, the number of URM students pursuing STEM is small. That number progressively diminishes at every transition point—undergraduates migrate to other disciplines or leave school entirely; graduate students drop out or leave with a master’s; new Ph.D. recipients don’t find faculty positions at high-quality universities; many leave research careers for outreach or nonresearch industry positions; junior faculty don’t get tenure. Finally, the number dwindles to those very, very few, perhaps the most precious of all, who persevere, against all odds, to distinguished careers in science.
If you are a URM student at a non-minority-serving institution, you are likely one of the very few URM students in your STEM classes. Your chances of ever having a URM STEM faculty member throughout your time as a student are very slim. If you are a STEM professional in business or industry or academe, you are frequently not just one of a few but, in most instances, the only one in your department. In my field of mathematics, URM tenure-track faculty representation at good departments across the country is essentially nonexistent.
The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley had pretty much all foreign faculty in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Science, and yet the undergraduate population was 95 percent Hispanic. Cristina Villalobos, a former student of mine, became interim chair, and soon after, the department made five hires, four domestic, with two underrepresented minorities. It took a dedicated minority leader to change the composition. That is why we must become the leaders, instead of always begging non-URM leaders to “please, help us improve our representation.” Increasingly, women are positioned to support gender equity from positions of power and authority, and they do; unfortunately, this is not so for underrepresented minorities as a whole or even female underrepresented minorities.
STEM industry and political leaders are all saying that our society, in which a large and rapidly growing part of the population is unable to participate in the technological workforce, faces a grave economic disadvantage in an increasingly globalized competition for innovation. The nation’s goal should be to produce URM STEM students who are capable of excellence—the “precious few” who will become professional leaders in their fields and inspire “the precious many.”
Richard A. Tapia is a mathematician and professor at Rice University, where he directs the Center for Excellence and Equity in Education and the Graduate Education for Minorities and Empowering Leadership Alliance programs. He is the only Hispanic to be awarded the National Medal of Science and the first Hispanic elected to the National Academy of Engineering. This essay is adapted from Chapter Two of his forthcoming book, Losing the Precious Few: How America Fails to Educate Minorities in Science and Engineering.