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If Austin Peay Could Talk – Sheila’s Story

 

Austin Peay State University - APSUClarksville, TN – My mom is a retired teacher (and so is her sister), so education has always been an important part of my life. For my brother, sister and me, the question was not if we were going to college but where.  I graduated from the College of Charleston (CofC) in 1985. 

Sheila Bryant. (APSU)

Sheila Bryant. (APSU)

My mom told me (years later) that when she told her gynecologist (who was a white woman and had graduated from CofC) that I was attending C0fC; the doctor said to her “Don’t you mean Baptist College?” Baptist College (now Charleston Southern) is also in Charleston; however, the College of Charleston is more academically challenging. 

I truly believe that if my mom were white, the doctor’s response would have been similar to this: “Tell your daughter congratulations! I loved my undergraduate years at the college.” 

However, because her child was (is) Black, the assumption was that she did not have the intellect to attend an academically challenging college, so her own mother had to be wrong! My mom told me that her response to the doctor was, “No, she is attending the College of Charleston.” My reaction was unbelief, anger, sadness and bewilderment.

Unfortunately, I received that same biased message from some of my professors at the college. My major was biology.  In the early 1980s, there was not a large Black student population at the college and even less of a Black student presence in upper-level biology and chemistry classes. I graduated from a high school that was about 50/50. The parents of my friends also valued education. We were expected to do well academically, so there were always several of us in college prep courses.

At the College of Charleston, I was often the only Black student in my classes. Some of the professors (and students) looked surprised when I walked in and sat down.  Other professors pretended I was not there – did not call on me or make eye contact. Not all acted this way but enough did that it made me wonder if I indeed belonged there.

I remember feeling lonely and isolated in most of my classes. No one who looked like me was a student in most of my classes and none of my professors looked like me. I remember being reluctant to ask my professors for help and I remember thinking, “I cannot mess up (not even a little)!” I felt that if I “messed up,” they (my professors) would make an assumption about all Black students. That it would not be Sheila but they would generalize that “Blacks do not do well in…”

Unfortunately, not much has changed today. Dr. Willodean Burton (retired APSU professor) and I used to discuss the lack of Black students majoring in biology (and in any of the STEM majors) at APSU. They would declare biology as a major upon entering; however, change their major in their sophomore year. The biased assumption that Black students cannot succeed in STEM majors still exists.

 


 

It pains me to think that almost 40 years later that my child’s story may be the same as mine. Toni Morrison said, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” My child is a sophomore in high school. She is interested in and excels in chemistry, engineering and mathematics. I have no doubt that her major in college will be in a STEM area. I remained committed to doing what I can to help write a more inclusive story for her. 

– Sheila Bryant, Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, ADA Coordinator, Deputy Title IX Coordinator

 

If Austin Peay Could Talk

“If Austin Peay Could Talk” is a new, special series about listening. Paying tribute to James Baldwin’s novel, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the essays in this series are meant to magnify the experiences of the University’s black faculty and staff. Every Friday, a different University employee will share their own deeply personal story about racism – stories that have been overlooked for too long. Today, Austin Peay State University is talking, and we hope you will simply listen to these important words.


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