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Chemistry graduate students plan to create change in support of Black Lives Matter
21 July 2020
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Chem GSA 2020-2021

In the past couple of months, Penn State’s leadership—including from individual colleges and campuses as well as student organizations—have released statements supporting the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and emphasizing the importance of inclusivity. Among the many student groups represented is the Chemistry Graduate Student Association (GSA), led by President Lily Mawby, graduate student in the Lear lab, and Vice President Eli Wenger, graduate student in the Bollinger-Krebs lab. The Chemistry GSA recently distributed an email emphasizing the importance of actively demonstrating support for BLM, especially within STEM. The letter outlines both broad and internal initiatives that the student organization intends to act on.

Broad initiatives 

  • Purchasing masks from a Black-owned business that supports both the BLM movement and pandemic aid charities 
  • Organizing a fundraiser to support the BLM movement with other student organizations in the college 
  • Once public safety allows, hosting and participating in outreach events directed towards lower-income, Black, and other underrepresented communities, focused on providing STEM opportunities to young students

Internal initiatives

  • Collaborating on events with the Penn State Chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) 
  • Creating implicit bias training in CHEM 500 
  • Connecting with the Black Graduate Student Association for further collaborations

The Chemistry GSA was created roughly five years ago, with a focus on fostering community within the chemistry department. Their scope has since expanded to include three more primary goals: providing professional development opportunities, involving graduate students in community outreach, and recruiting and retaining new graduate students. And with the addition of the aforementioned initiatives, the group will bring new focuses to light in the 2020–2021 academic year.

“I feel like this is too big of an issue to not do something, especially since STEM tends to have difficulty with diversity,” said Mawby. “Our department is not as diverse as it should be. It doesn’t look like what America looks like.”

While it was clear to the students that change was needed, the group initially grappled with what their academia-based group could do and whether they would have any sort of impact in the BLM movement. Wenger recalled how he was first concerned about the GSA’s scale of influence, but it soon became clear that this was the time for conversation on issues to change.

“I started to feel that the attitude of ‘What can I do?’ and ‘It's not my place’ is actually the whole point of having a national conversation about these issues,” said Wenger. “That catharsis helped me realize that anyone with any kind of platform can challenge assumptions or biases in personal relationships and even the larger systems. These efforts just felt worthy to me.” 

Among the group’s three internal efforts is a collaboration with NOBCChE, a nationwide organization for undergraduate and graduate students that focuses on building successful diverse global leaders in STEM and advancing their professional endeavors. The president of Penn State’s chapter for the 2020–2021 academic year is Dayna Patterson, a chemistry graduate student in the Weinert lab. On the topic of how alumni can directly help current students, Patterson emphasized two main points.

“Donations help out a lot because that helps Black organizations bring in speakers and support Black students through conferences or workshop travel for professional development,” she said. “Also, alumni should reach out to the Eberly Office of Diversity and Inclusion and ask how they can help support Black students.” 

With the start of the school year, CHEM 500 students should plan to have implicit bias training as part of their curriculum. This course is a mandatory, once-a-week class for incoming first-year graduate students. The hope is to grow the number of community members who know how to recognize and approach a situation where someone is treated with acts of bias or intolerance.

While plans are bound to change and evolve as the school year starts, the GSA plans to continue working with student organizations and administrative offices in the college. They’ve opened their door to hear more about suggestions, ideas, wants, and needs of their community to create a bias-free and more-welcoming space for marginalized minorities, especially Black and African American students.  

"I'm very appreciative of all the opportunities I gained by being able to attend Penn State for graduate school,” said Wenger. “The bigger the pool of support is for those coming from a diverse set of backgrounds, the richer our department—and ultimately our society—will be."