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How 2 Black women faced racial barriers in college — and still made history

Danielle Geathers, MIT's student body president, and Chika Stacy Oriuwa, valedictorian at the University of Toronto medical school, are paving the way for Black women in higher education.
race and higher education
Jenny Chang-Rodriguez / Getty Images

Danielle Geathers and her running mate, Yu Jing Chen, were deemed the "diversity ticket” in student body elections at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this past spring. Classmates told them they were naive and didn't know how student government worked. On the anonymous Facebook page “MIT Confessions,” people wrote comments like, "I’m not going to vote a social justice warrior into office."

Danielle Geathers

“It’s like if a Black woman is talking about diversity, that’s all she cares about," Geathers, 20, told TODAY by phone. "And I don’t think that would’ve happened if I was a white male.”

Despite the skeptics and naysayers, Geathers is now the first Black female student body president in MIT’s history. The rising junior and mechanical engineering major is part of the 6.2% of undergraduate students who identify as Black and African American at the school; a representative from MIT told TODAY that an additional 3.9% of students identify as Black and one or more other races.

"In exploring MIT, one thing I feared was that my social life would be in jeopardy," Geathers, who hails from Miami, said about the diversity of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, school. "I visited the campus a lot, and one thing I didn’t notice was Black women. I was welcomed into the Black women community, but it’s small, and I think it’s honestly decreasing."

That instinct is generally supported by data from MIT’s registrar over the past 15 years. Since 2005, Black or African American students have made up roughly 6% of the student body — going as high as 8.46% in 2010 and as low as 5.28% in 2014 (the school began categorizing two races or more as a separate category in 2011, which could explain the drop in Black or African American students beginning that year).

In that same time period, the number of Hispanic or Latino students has generally trended upward, from 11.51% in 2005 to 15.43% in 2020. The number of Asian students, meanwhile, stood at 27.78% of the student body in 2005 and generally trended downward until 2014, when a steady climb eventually gave Asians a plurality in 2020 at 29.58%, eclipsing the number of white students for the first time at 28.72%.

While Geathers said she hasn’t experienced racism in the form of overt hate at MIT, she sees it on a systemic and historical level rooted in MIT's composition. In comparison with the overall U.S. population, Black students are underrepresented among the school's undergrads. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau from July 2019, Black or African Americans make up 13.4% of the population, while Hispanics or Latinos represent 18.3%; another 2.7% identify as belonging to two or more races. On the highly represented end of the spectrum, Asians make up only 5.9% of the U.S. population.

Geathers said that while MIT sees performance as the ultimate metric for students’ success, Black students must cope with “systemic barriers in society” — a notion that many Americans are waking up to in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd and the sweeping protests across the U.S. and around the world.

And that’s in addition to keeping up with the rigorous course load at a No. 3-ranked national university, according to U.S. News & World Report.

“It’s going to translate into a different academic performance,” Geathers said. “I think as long as we are clearly acknowledging that, there will be separation. Personally, I feel like I am able to fit in on campus, but I don’t think I fully belong on campus in terms of MIT’s society and society in general in America.”

Addressing diversity on college campuses

The university is aware of the need for change. “MIT has made some progress, but much more remains to be done," John Dozier, MIT’s institute community and equity officer, told TODAY in an email on June 12. "As I wrote, today, to the MIT faculty, a coordinated, strategic, well-resourced, highly visible action plan for diversity, equity, and inclusion is what MIT urgently needs now. The plan alone, of course, will not address these issues by itself, but it will provide a fresh push for accountability and give us a baseline for continually measuring and assessing our progress."

Diverse groups get things done better and faster. They are a way to push innovation.

Danielle Geathers

And MIT is far from alone in its struggle to achieve diversity, which goes beyond race, ethnicity and tribal affiliation to include culture, geography, gender, religion, income level, sexual orientation, first-generation status and more. Almost every major American college and university has a diversity initiative or task force, though what diversity actually means is still up for debate.

Many universities — even those located in regions where many people of color live — also have demographics that don't necessarily align with the local population. The University of Michigan's campuses at Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint are located in communities with large Black populations; 78.6% of Detroit residents and 53.7% of Flint residents are Black or African American alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Out of 30,318 undergrads welcomed to the University of Michigan's 2019 class, 58.2% were white, 14.6% were Asian, 6.3% were Hispanic or Latino, 4.2% were Black or African American, and 4.4% identified with two or more races.

California State University, the nation's largest public university with 23 campuses across the Golden State, recorded 481,210 students enrolled in the fall of 2018. Of that group, 41.5% were Hispanic or Latino, 23% were white, 15.9% were Asian or Pacific Islander, 4% were African American, and 4.4% identified with two or more races. Its student body more closely aligns with California's demographics, which is 39.4% Hispanic or Latino, 36.5% white, 15.5% Asian, 6.5% Black or African American, and 4% identifying with two or more races according to the Census Bureau.

And challenges to affirmative action still linger. Last fall, Harvard University won a lawsuit, filed by a group called Students for Fair Admissions, which claimed that the university intentionally discriminates against Asian American applicants.

Although Geathers’ election win at MIT is historic, she chose not to mention it at all during her campaign to avoid race-baiting. Instead, she focused on the need to elect someone who has personally dealt with racial injustices in order to help others who might be having similar experiences.

"If you just think about how lonely you feel, it’s going to affect your academics," Geathers said.

Making a change at MIT

As the student body president, Geathers has already taken action. She founded Talented Ten, an internal program aimed at attracting more Black female students to MIT.

"I have created the Talented Ten because I understand the value that black females bring to campus while also understanding the tremendous loss the MIT community experiences when a qualified, underrepresented minority student chooses to not enroll," Geathers writes on the program's website.

As student body president, Geathers will be working directly with the head of the MIT mental health department and the counsel — a legislative body of student government — to work toward creating an inclusive atmosphere for students of all underrepresented groups.

"Diverse groups get things done better and faster," she said. "They are a way to push innovation."

At the top of her class — and alone

Chika Stacy Oriuwa

Some 550 miles away, just north of the Canada-U.S. border, Chika Stacy Oriuwa knows what it’s like to be different. Graduating from the University of Toronto’s medical school and a separate master’s program in May, the 26-year-old became the only woman nominated and the first Black woman to be selected sole valedictorian.

When she started at the university, she was the only Black student in her class.

Oriuwa recalls that on her first day of medical school, a fellow classmate questioned if she received preferential treatment to get into the school because she was Black. Outside the classroom, Oriuwa further experienced racial prejudice when working in the clinical wards.

"I was donned in my stethoscope and my scrubs and I had patients who told me to leave the room because they did not believe I was a part of the medical team," she told TODAY by phone. "They would say, 'Whoever is not a doctor needs to leave,' and then pointing to me and saying, 'She's not a doctor.’”

Throughout her time at the University of Toronto, Oriuwa was disappointed in the curriculum that did not address Black health appropriately and failed to be inclusive. It's a topic receiving more attention in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic, with recent surveys showing that 11% of African Americans have a family member or close friend who died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. That's compared with 5% of Americans overall, and 4% of white Americans.

They would say, 'Whoever is not a doctor needs to leave,' and then pointing to me and saying, 'She's not a doctor.’

Chika Stacy Oriuwa

Professor Lisa Robinson, the associate dean of inclusion and diversity at the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine, told TODAY via email that progress for support and inclusion of Black students is being made.

"As a Faculty of Medicine, we are working with our hospital partners to shine a light on what anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism looks like in the clinical environment, the deep harm it causes, and what we all need to do to create the accountability needed to effect change," she wrote.

Robinson said that in 2016, the school appointed Dr. Onye Nnorom as the Black Health Theme Lead to work with physicians who focus on Indigenous health and LGBTQ patients to support the development and integration of Black health into the curriculum of the medical program.

But there's another element missing for people from underrepresented groups: community.

“There were times that I would experience discrimination or someone would make a racially insensitive comment or I would experience microaggression or macroaggression, and during those times where I felt not necessarily safe to speak up and defend myself, or I would do so and I would struggle to find allies," Oriuwa said. "Those were the times that I felt most alone.”

Robinson said, "The Faculty of Medicine has been working to change a problematic history in the number of Black doctors in training – and we know that we have to do better."

According to the university, more than 20 Black students will be enrolled in its medical program in the 2020-2021 school year.

'Living the systemic issue'

"So much of being a Black person in these spaces, you are usually the only one or one of very few," she said. "There's a lot of risk calculation going into knowing which battles to fight and which ones to necessarily let go. I think it's important to recognize that there are going to be so many comments, remarks, gestures, actions, that, you know, are various permutations of anti-Blackness and discrimination you might have to encounter — I know at least in medicine — on a day to day."

Oriuwa says it can be incredibly challenging to try and educate every single person, as it depletes emotional energy.

She advises young Black men and women to determine their individual risk calculation when it comes to defending themselves or educating others. She warns against fighting every single case as not everyone will be ready to hear what you have to say.

"The most important thing is having a sense of how you define yourself, know what you will and will not stand for," Oriuwa said. "I knew unequivocally that fighting for these things was something that was so important; I allowed that to guide me to make difficult decisions and overcome adversity."

Over the last four years, Oriuwa has been actively advocating for the Black community through speaking engagements, seminars, articles and initiatives. She recently started as a psychiatry resident at the University of Toronto on July 1, where she says she is the only Black resident in her program out of roughly 35 people; the university couldn't immediately provide statistics to TODAY regarding its enrollment by race for the overall residency program. She plans to continue to help recruit Black students to the University of Toronto's school of medicine.

"This is a systemic issue," she said. "I am living the systemic issue because by the time I've done my training, it'll be 13 years of being the only Black person in an educational environment."

Oriuwa continued, "I will continuously strive to make this world a safer place to simply exist."

CORRECTION (July 10, 2020, 4:23 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated the job title of Professor Lisa Robinson. Her current job title is associate dean, inclusion and diversity, not the chief diversity officer.

CLARIFICATION (July 16, 2020, 1:09 p.m.): Chika Stacy Oriuwa is the only Black resident in her psychiatry program. This article has been updated to indicate the size of her program, which is roughly 35 people.