Now that the U.S. Supreme Court banned the use of race in undergraduate admissions, what awaits us is a floodgate of potential lawsuits attacking organizations and universities who are working on improving the representation of Latino and historically underrepresented scientists from the Ph.D. to the faculty level, where diversity is severely lacking. Decades of progress has now been erased. It’s up to us to continue to champion the cause and listen to the stories of underrepresented scientists and learn why the lack of diversity in academia remains an issue. 

My story starts off as an undocumented immigrant at CUNY who infiltrated the Ivy league for a decade to pursue a career in the sciences to work towards my American dream. Since then, I became a U.S. citizen, the first person in my family to earn a Ph.D. in the sciences, spearheaded and collaborated on mentorship initiatives to support students of color in graduate school and founded a science organization, Científico Latino, to improve the pipeline of students of color into higher education in the sciences. 

During my time moving up the academic ladder, I have seen the gatekeeping and the systemic racism of the broken and inequitable system that is graduate school. I have seen my colleagues start graduate school excited to finally reach these academic towers that were once denied to their parents, to follow their dreams to become professors to support the next generation of scientists. As the first in our family to go to college and the first to pursue a Ph.D., we tell our immigrant parents that this investment in an education will be worth it as we are following our American Dream. Our parents support us even though they may not understand why a Ph.D. takes 5 to 7 years and why we put up with a low salary (a $33,000 yearly stipend was my salary back in 2013). We take this next step for a better future, even though every year we spend in academia is another year our parents grow older, counting on us for retirement as they work in factories, restaurants or as farm workers to make ends meet. 

As students of color, we face multiple obstacles that put us at a disadvantage compared to our white colleagues from privileged backgrounds: the loss of our identity and lack of financial support. The lack of representation at the student and faculty level perpetuate the feeling of isolation. We often hide our identities to fit in and question whether we deserve to be here, or if we were admitted to fill a diversity quota, as our colleagues remind us when we win a fellowship over them. Some students live from paycheck to paycheck. As a Ph.D., a stipend alone is not enough to afford rent. Some live off food stamps and some students take on second and third jobs to make ends meet to secure the next meal, all while working full-time as academic scientists.

We enter these academic towers ready to make a difference, hoping to make meaningful scientific discoveries, and earn a Ph.D.  But we quickly become aware that we are the only person of color in our incoming class, our lab or the entire department. Some of us are even the first person of color to obtain a Ph.D. in their department.

Many of us feel the need to change this, so we start to live two lives, one in the research laboratory and the other as organizers, leaders, and recruiters. We take on unpaid and unrecognized labor as we spearhead initiatives to ensure students of color feel they belong in graduate school, take part of committees to discuss how we can improve diversity in our department and work on recruiting students of color to graduate school. However, our work is often met with pushback, as our colleagues tell us we should stop making everything about race, or to diminish our experiences. Our professors remind us that we should spend more time in the laboratory and stop wasting time on this diversity work, while well-intentioned faculty remind us how we should only focus on recruiting the best of the best students of color.

And every time that we advocate for our colleagues who are struggling in academia, we are often told, “Be grateful.” As this should justify the low salary, the poor healthcare benefitsthe lack of retirement funds and the pressure of being overworked. I wish I could say this was specific to one university, but after years of connecting with students all over the country, I can confidently say this is the experience of students of color across the entire nation. Lastly, let’s not forget that this problem exists across all of academia, from our teachersdoctorsnurses and lawyers

If we do nothing to change the inequities of academia, we run a risk of moving backward, as we’re seeing with the elimination of DEI programs in Florida, which will lead to the diversity in our academic talent pools to dwindle along with our innovation and creativity that drives scientific discoveries. Instead, let’s move forward and learn from programs making a difference to help students of color in graduate programs, including Brown University’s IMSD Program, the student-run Yale’s YBDIC program, and OHSU’s Racial Equity and Inclusion Center.

I am proud to be part of the 6% of Latinos to earn a STEM doctoral degree. However, now that the Supreme Court gutted Affirmative Action, I can’t help but wonder how many students of color will not be able to pursue their American Dream. 

Robert W. Fernandez is a Junior Simons Fellow at Columbia University and co-founder of Científico Latino. He is also a PD Soros Fellow and Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.