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New Biology department PEER mentorship group aims to reduce the isolation of BIPOC students

Following the murder of George Floyd, departments across campus had conversations and reckonings about how to address systemic racism and better support BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students. In the Biology department, such discussions spearheaded the creation of the student-led PEER (Persons Excluded because of their Ethnicity or Race) mentorship organization. 

Sara Saintil and Raba Tefera, two senior Biology majors, founded the group and began its first year of programming this fall. The mentorship team has since expanded with Denyse Marquez Sanchez ’21 joining the group and offering her advice and mentorship to prospective biology majors. The group hopes to mitigate a culture of isolation among BIPOC students in the field. 

 Sara Saintil described her experience with isolation in the Biology department: “The term isolating really sits with me. Biology is a big field that many people want to get into at the start of their college career. This is a great thing, but this creates a huge community that makes it hard to connect to people.” 

Saintil and Tefera voiced these concerns to the Biology faculty this summer following the department’s email outreach to BIPOC students. On August 7, Chair of the Biology Department Daniel Hernandez wrote to students, “In addition to dealing with the challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, we are also in the midst of a cultural reckoning with the racial and ethnic biases that have plagued our nation for centuries. 

As a department, we have discussed ways that we can respond to the moment—to make our community more welcoming and supportive of BIPOC students and to acknowledge the history and legacy of racism in biology. As one first step, I would like to schedule a few zoom conversations to have discussions with those of you who identify as BIPOC or are from ethnic groups historically underrepresented in the sciences.”

Professors listened to students’ concerns about issues of race and equity in the science classroom and community. Saintil stated, “We had a chat with Professor Daniel Hernandez at the end of the summer about what we had experienced. We came up with the idea to create a group that centered on BIPOC students and focused on making connections. We hope to support students at Carleton and after, because biology doesn’t get more diverse the farther in the field you go.” 

Hernandez recalled that “the idea for the group came out of conversations with BIPOC students over Zoom this summer. One of the recurring themes during the meeting was that students felt isolated in early biology courses. It was an issue with students not feeling comfortable in courses.” 

The group aspires to connect underclassmen interested in the major with upperclassmen mentors, creating a space for BIPOC students to access resources and form relationships. Tefera said, “We want to introduce them to the major and a friendly face to help them enjoy biology.” The mentors hope that forming these relationships will reduce feelings of imposter syndrome and isolation among early-career BIPOC biology students. 

Mentors noted how many first-years may be too intimidated or ashamed to attend office hours or prefect sessions. They hope they can reduce the stigma students may have about asking for help. 

Hernandez imagines the mentors will help by giving students of color “someone to reach out to and relate with, to not feel like they are alone if they are struggling or have questions.”  The group hopes to foster inclusivity and arrange for mentors and mentees to meet as often as needed. Additionally, mentors will share resources such as  internships, externships and other opportunities for BIPOC students to build their resumes.

In recent academic years, Biology has been one of the most popular majors, but BIPOC majors in the department worry about students of color not feeling welcome or not staying with the major. Tefera reiterated that “biology is definitely an isolating major” and noted that “there are not a lot of BIPOC students and students that look like us in classes. The introductory courses are hard, and for BIPOC students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and maybe didn’t take AP courses, it’s going to be harder.” 

Saintil and Tefera stated that many students of color know of fellow BIPOC students who entered Carleton planning to study biology and pursue the pre-med route but changed their major plans. While numbers have not been published by the college regarding the Biology department’s retention of BIPOC students, the mentors agreed that there is a need for more resources dedicated to supporting BIPOC students in STEM. 

Ultimately, the mentors acknowledge that the PEER group is only the beginning of increasing equity and inclusivity in the Biology department. Marquez Sanchez noted, “It’s the start of a response. There are systemic problems, and this is a small thing. I hope the Biology department doesn’t use this program to be complacent. There need to be continued efforts and information to help BIPOC students in STEM.” 

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