This post was written by ScIU guest writer Haley Norris, a graduate student in IU’s Information and Library Sciences (ILS) Program.
In 2019, Inside Higher Ed used federal data to show that Latinx and black students switched out of STEM majors at rates of 8% and 11% higher than their white counterparts. This led to people in higher education trying to figure out why BIPOC students did not feel supported enough to stay in STEM fields. The truth is that higher education is white-centric and reinforces many of the same layers of systemic racism that are more widely acknowledged in government, courts, policing, prisons, and beyond. To ensure that all students feel welcome and secure in STEM spaces, collegiate science libraries have launched many initiatives to support BIPOC students in tangible ways.
Before getting into the steps libraries are taking, it is important to understand why these steps are necessary. IU, for instance, is a “white space.” By “white space,” I am referring to how Indiana University was founded in 1820 but did not have its first black male graduate until 1895 or first black female graduate in 1919, nearly 75 and 99 years later, respectively. While we want to believe that we exist in a bubble free from the influence of years of racism, classism, and sexism here at Indiana University, we don’t. There is a reason why the label of traditionally black colleges exist and as students and faculty at a non-traditionally black college we need to be mindful of that, especially since approximately 96% of black tenured faculty work at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
Mindfulness about our university demographics when constructing programs and hiring are not a want, but a need. Attempting to meet this need, Anne Switzer, an outreach librarian for Oakland University in Michigan in 2008, discovered a link between black student retention and library use. Knowing that library use correlates with BIPOC academic success, she made changes to create a welcoming library for these students. Switzer created book clubs and panels to talk about student experiences of racial discrimination and actively sought personnel with diverse backgrounds to represent the demographics of students they served. UNC’s Health Sciences Library has made a point to try recruiting more traditionally underrepresented individuals to be librarians. Unlike the shade of your skin, bigotry and stereotyping are not worn outwardly, so it is only understandable that a BIPOC student may feel uncomfortable being in a “white space.”
Steps such as these are still more essential in STEM because of the perceived — and real — whiteness of STEM fields. The International Journal of STEM education found that race and gender directly correlate with how comfortable a student feels within the program, reporting that women of color have the least sense of belonging. With this in mind, the IU Science Library has started multiple diversity initiatives to better represent and support its own BIPOC STEM students. Currently, there is a Google form where the library encourages BIPOC STEM students to share their sciences origin story, the who/what/how that inspired them to enter their STEM field. The goal is to represent and uplift those students who have previously been underrepresented in these disciplines. We intend to turn the survey into a collage at the end of the school year, and the survey offers an anonymity option if students do not want to be featured, but still want to participate. The library also has a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion(DEI) team consisting of a graduate student and several undergraduate students who are working on a specific DEI libguide for all the science subjects covered by the library. These efforts are still in their early days, so we will have to see what impact they have on stem retention in the coming years.
Edited by Joe Veulitch and Lana Ruck