Representation vs. Retention

Storyteller: Alexis (she/her/hers), 25, New York

Story Transcript: 

Hi, my name is Alexis Williams, I am a seventh grade technology education teacher. And I am here to give you the story of how I got to be where I am today in the STEM field. So I guess my story begins, like a lot of people were, I was not actually someone who was super interested in science, technology, engineering and math. When I was in school, I actually was asked by one of my own high school teachers who taught woodworking at the time, if I would join his class in exchange for a sticker. Me being the young kid that I was, I was super excited, “Yay, I get a sticker, I'm going to join the class!” So I joined his class, and I ended up absolutely falling in love with the content. So when we were in the class, we were able to use math in a real life setting, we were able to use science in a real life setting. And then we were also able to incorporate art and other different, you know, things that go along with that, to put it together and to actually make something tangible. It was the first time in my life, that I could actually see a physical representation of my work come together. And that absolutely changed my life and my outlook on education all together. 

It was from that point on, that I decided that I would want to go to school to be a technology education teacher. And that was really big for me, especially coming from somebody who had absolutely no plan to be a teacher, let alone go to college, I wasn't going to do that at all. So after I decided that I was going to actually go to school for technology and engineering education. I applied to a school in upstate New York. And it turned out to be one of the only schools in New York State that certifies for technology and engineering education. I was completely and utterly unaware when I got to the program that I was going to be the only person of color, and one of three females actually enrolled in the program, which is a wild statistic, seeing that this is the only school in the state of New York that certifies these teachers, there's only one person of color and three females that will be teaching the youth of America technology and engineering education around the time that I graduated. 

So what I ended up doing was, I followed through with my classes, and I had seen how things played out in my very first week of school, and I actually ended up being a victim of a hate crime, which absolutely changed my life for the rest of my life. I was done. I did not want to continue with this. I said I knew college wasn't for me, I knew that going into STEM was not for me. I don't see anybody like me, there's a reason why there's nobody like me here. Something allowed me to come back. It was through the trials and the tribulations that I actually faced after the hate crime had occurred where someone they wrote a racial slur on one of my own personal belongings on my computer. I at the time was kind of just like, you know, I want to get past this, I want to move forward, I want to become a better person. I don't want to be bothered by these things. But I had people who should have been supporting me, during that very difficult time, who didn't see race or gender as things that would actually deter people from wanting to be in this field. And especially as someone who was going to be in education at the time, or people who were educators at the time, it was kind of disheartening to see that I had nobody in my corner. 

Soon after that, I ended up going into my student teaching. And that's where I realized that it was extremely important for me not to leave, not because it was easy by any stretch of the imagination, not because it was convenient. But because I looked back on my life at that time. And I realized that I wanted to leave so badly because I see nobody else like me. If I'm the only person of color, and one of the only three females that actually went into the program to begin with. When I graduated and I become a teacher, I'm probably these kids’ only chance and opportunity to have someone who looks like them, which is something that I craved and wanted and needed so badly during my career in my life growing up. So I decided to stay for that reason, which the hard part is nobody wants to be resilient. 

Resiliency is a great attribute. It's a great characteristic. But at a certain point, I don't want to be resilient anymore. I just want to exist, I want to fit in, I want to see people like me, I don't want to have to continuously fight to have a seat at the table, the seat at the table should be there. But on the other hand, I realized that that must be my role moving forward and becoming an educator as if there were no seats at the table for me. I'm going to make sure that I create the seats for my children moving forward. So I ended up staying. I stuck it out. I ended up graduating and I did become a teacher which I think paid off tenfold to be a technology and education teacher of color because It is the moments that melt my heart where I have my students tell me, 'Oh my goodness, Miss Williams, I'm so happy that you're here. You know, your hair looks just like mine or, you know, Miss Williams, how do you think I could do this with my hair? How do you think I could do this differently, or, you know, I've never seen a teacher like you, you actually get us, you understand us.'

 So coming back all the way full circle through the transition in the opportunities I've had in my life, I've come to realize that this is not by any means an easy fight. It is not an easy battle to have. But it's an important battle that we need to go through. And here's the reason. Representation might be the easy part. We can get people in the door, we can get people to come, we can get people to hear our stories, we can get people in STEM, we can get people in science, tech, engineering and math, but can we get them to stay? Those are two very different things. Representation and retention are two very different topics. And retention is where our efforts need to be focused. If we're building a better tomorrow, we need to make sure that the few people we can get in the door. Don't leave. And the way we do that is through ally ship. The way that we do that is from making sure that everyone feels safe and they feel comfortable and they feel supported, because you're going to need that. It is a lonely feeling to know that you're the only one out there but it keeps me going knowing that I must be the pioneer to start for a better tomorrow. And I wish and I hope that all of my students don't go through the heartache that I went through but if they happen to do that, it makes life a little easier knowing that I will be there to support them through their journey."

Representation might be the easy part. We can get people in the door, we can get people to come, we can get people to hear our stories, we can get people in STEM, we can get people in science, tech, engineering and math, but can we get them to stay?