Nationally, only 16 percent of high school seniors show proficiency in math and express interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Unfortunately, representation and degree completion in STEM fields is even more scant for students of color.

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David Johns, White House, Executive Director,White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, addresses participants at the “Producing STEM Stars” panel during the CBCF’s Annual Legislative Conference on Sept. 14. (Photo by Chelsea Burwell)

The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 46th Annual Legislative Conference included a panel discussion, “Producing STEM STARS: Supporting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Success among African American Students” on Sept. 14 that addressed the department’s statistics and offered solutions to diversify the field and workforce.

“The greatest thing that had the most impact on me was the support system I had with my mother and other ladies that were with me,” said panelist Yasmin Graham, who is a student of color in STEM at the University of Maryland – Baltimore County. “They were always there to challenge and encourage me to take classes that were beyond the norm, that were higher level math and science classes.”

Other student panelists included: Aliyah Smith, University of Maryland- Baltimore County; Anicca Harriot, Regent University and Grace Dolan-Sandrino, Duke Ellington School of the Arts; all of the panelists were young women of color. David Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, was the moderator.  

As millennial voices led the discussion, important facets of Black youth entering technology and art fields – such as mentorship, support systems and resourcing – were highlighted.

“Seeing the dedication that other people had in making sure I followed my dreams motivated me all the more to prove them right,” Harriot said. “It’s incredibly rare, as you see with the number of women that come out of this pipeline. So, having that support system, not only from people who were there to motivate me but people who looked like me, was important, because it showed that there were people like me.”

Dolan-Sandrino, a high school junior who is majoring in theater, said that integrating art classes opened doors for students to take their creativity to new levels.

“Art education is very important because it allows us to correct and create our own narratives,” she said. According to Dolan-Sandrino, investment in arts education advocacy is essential to her self-expression and identity.

“I am an Afro-Latino transgender youth and I definitely see myself falling into the large community of marginalized people; being able to create my own narratives through my own work is very helpful.”

Additionally, Graham, Williams and Dolan-Sandrino said it is vital to tap into the surrounding communities for support and opportunities. With limited funding being allocated to art education and STEM programs, the young women said that it is necessary for nonprofit and local organizations to fill the voids for Black youth.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to get engaged early and engage often,” Williams said.