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Black History Month Spotlight: OISE fellow tackles barriers to STEM studies for black, minority students

Need to promote higher education to first-generation university students, says Veronique Merritt

February 23, 2018

By Kaitlyn Balkovec


Among many factors preventing black and visible minority students from pursuing STEM studies is a lack of familiarity with higher education. As Veronique Merritt explains, “You’re born on a ladder. If you come from a family of educated people, then you have inherited the language of the institution and access.”  

STEM professions – that is, jobs involving science, technology, engineering and math – are some of the most stable, secure and prosperous in the world.

But while studies in STEM fields are open to those of all races, STEM professionals are vastly white.  Research shows minorities including African Americans, Hispanics and Indigenous people are less likely than Caucasians or Asians to graduate from high school, and enrol in or graduate from higher education. Among those who do enrol in or graduate from university, STEM degree attainment is only 25 per cent for minorities.*

OISE’s Veronique Merritt is aiming to change that.

The doctoral research fellow from Columbia University has taken her efforts to OISE’s Social Justice Education department. Her goal is to create greater access to higher education for first-generation university students interested in STEM disciplines to help change the face of those in STEM careers.

Specifically, Merritt is researching and identifying the traits of university students from university-educated families, and in turn, looking to see what steps can be taken to instil those characteristics or traits in youth from non-university educated families.

“We can teach students how to succeed and based on my research, I believe this is how to do it,” she adds.

OISE News sat down with Merritt to talk to her about her research and involvement in Black History Month.


Cultural, institutional barriers to STEM studies

One of the factors determining whether a student pursues higher education, Merritt explains, is their socioeconomic class.

“You’re born on a ladder,” she says. “If you come from a family of educated people, then you have inherited the language of the institution and access.”

For many black or visible minority youth whose parents have not attended university, pursuing higher education is not an obvious choice.  This is because their non-university educated parents, who typically work vocational jobs, cannot offer leadership or guidance.

Education ‘goes against’ crime culture

Being in an environment where gang and crime culture is normalized can also act as a barrier to higher education. This is especially true for students interested in STEM study but afraid to choose a path that goes against what’s accepted by their peers and society. Furthermore, Merritt says joining a gang or getting involved in drugs is a way for young people to identify with their surroundings and give them credibility in their community.

“If they only knew that education can provide all the same things as this other choice – such as inclusion, respect, and culture,” she says.

The isolated nature of universities can often make higher education seem distant and unattainable to those from non-university educated families.

“These young people have no idea about how universities are typically laid out, or that individual colleges within the university are dedicated to law, medicine, etc.,” says Merritt, adding that when it’s difficult for students to visualize the institution that makes STEM study possible, they are discouraged from pursuing it or get frustrated and drop out.

Merritt’s research: Building STEM students

In her research, Merritt has identified a number of character traits present in students who are successful in STEM programs. These include commitment, courage, curiosity, leadership, honesty, initiative, joy, expectations, resourcefulness, resilience and wisdom. Encouraging students to develop and build these character traits when they are young will allow them to be able to face the challenges that STEM study and higher education in general will bring, she notes.  

Health and wellness also play an important role in allowing students to reach their full potential. “First-generation university students need to have a balanced perspective in all areas of their life in order to succeed,” says Merritt. “This includes financial, spiritual, social, emotional, physical, and occupational perspectives.” Involvement in activities such as recreational sports, religious worship, or having financial security through a part-time job all contribute to a young person’s well-being.  Students not accustomed to engaging in structured, intellectually challenging programs requiring self-regulation need reinforcement and support in this area. 

‘Promoting university familiarity’

Promoting university familiarity is one way in which institutions can help encourage students to pursue higher education and alleviate some of the anxieties they may have about attending such institutions.

Merritt believes that universities should open up their doors to potential students with regularly scheduled programs, giving them the chance to become more acquainted from as early as elementary school. “First-generation university students need to understand the language of university,” she says. “Having a sense of familiarity and comfort is necessary so that they feel normal engaging in academics and scholarly achievement.”

Possibly the most important thing that educators can do for these students is to act as mentors to them.

“Educators need to show their students that they are committed to their success,” she says. “Young people need to know that their community cares about their choice making and their success or failure.”



Veronique Merritt has organized a series of Black History Month drumming circle events at OISE. 

OISE Drumming Circle Event: Remembering the past to progress

In honour of Black History Month, Merritt has organized a series of Black History Month drumming circle events, in collaboration with OISE’s Graduate Students Association and Social Justice Education department. Each Friday beginning on February 9 and ending on March 2, from 6-10 pm in the Nexus Lounge, the events are an opportunity for staff and students to come together for a time of reflection and expression.

The conference room is dedicated to introspection, with activities like yoga, journaling and meditation. In the seminar room, guests can expect a livelier atmosphere with open mic, spoken word, dancing, singing, and drumming.

While the event is a celebration of black history and culture, it also calls attention to the challenges members of the black community continue to face.

“Everyone is bringing their perspective on how black history has affected them,” says Merritt. “How do you think about the past and how it has influenced your access and abilities right now? And how is that going to affect your future?”

Merritt noted the powerful theme of the event, “remembering the past in order to progress,” is a reminder that Black History Month is about more than celebrating past achievements of the black community: It’s also about acknowledging wrongs that have been committed in order to fight the persistent racial prejudice that still exists today.

RSVP for OISE’s Drumming Circle Event

*Source: summarized by Merritt based on data from the National Science Foundation.