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Women of Color Summit educates, aids MSU students

February 10, 2013


Felecia M. Nave has a name for life as an American minority female: the “double bind.”

Nave, associate provost and associate vice president at Prairie View (Texas) A&M University, said women only hold 25 percent of America’s jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Meanwhile, she said, minority students are graduating at rates 25 percent lower than the national average. So, she said, women who are also minorities face a “double bind.”

“For women of color, you pull issues from both the gender category and the ethnic category,” Nave said. “There are some issues that are unique to women of color that are not always addressed.”

Nave was one of several speakers and panelists visiting Mississippi State University’s Colvard Student Union for the Women of Color Summit Friday, aimed at helping minority women break the double bind.

MSU provost Jerry Gilbert said he welcomed the panelists and speakers as role models for MSU’s minority female students. He said the conference also continues a dialogue about ways that MSU faculty and staff can facilitate minority students’ success, begun with a Men of Color Conference in August.

“I think it’s valuable any time you can take success stories, put them in front of a group of people and let people be inspired by that,” Gilbert said. “That’s what we saw this morning, people that have left Mississippi State and gone on and done really exciting things and the students can sit in the audience and say, ‘That could be me.’”

Nave is originally from Prentiss, and she said she is one of very few African-American female professors in the country. Specifically, she said only 2 percent of tenured full professors in America are women of color; 8 percent of them are men of color and 17 percent of them are white women.

“By all standards and accounts ... I didn’t follow what most people would say are things that dictate success,” Nave said. “I’m black, I’m a woman, I’m from a small town in Mississippi (and) I’m from a single-parent home. I have not changed. I have some degrees, but who I am is not what my degrees are.”

To counteract the statistics, Nave said it is important for women of color to take personal responsibility for their education and careers by planning, being informed and building social networks. These networks need to include minorities and non-minorities and men and women, she said, and once a minority woman does attain prominence, she has a responsibility to help others.

“Be a change agent. Be there to make a difference not only in your own life but in others’ lives as well,” Nave said. “Whereas the data is where it is, it doesn’t have to be that way for you. You are an individual. You need to be knowledgeable about the challenges you face, but you need to look at what you can do as a student or as a corporate employee to make your situation better.”

Lakiesha Williams, an assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering, said she appreciated Nave’s efforts to encourage more minority women to pursue STEM careers. She said the turnout for the Women of Color Summit was strong, with students receiving invaluable information and engaging with speakers by asking questions.

“I wish we could do this every year for our students, because the information is priceless,” Williams said. “We’re (also) talking about being healthy, eating healthy, just living a healthy lifestyle coupled with working. It’s relevant for every woman, not just women of color.”

Lashell Vaughn, vice president and chief technology officer for Memphis Light, Gas and Water, said she discussed work-life balance during her panel at the summit, encouraging students to take their education seriously but also enjoy life in college. She said she encourages women of color to live unafraid of the statistics.

“Know who you are and be very confident in who you are,” Vaughn said. “You don’t have to be loud to be seen. You can be soft-spoken, because you’re always a lady, but understand who you are. Don’t be afraid to express your opinion with whomever you’re talking with.

“I think this summit is fantastic,” Vaughn added. “I think that the university is to be commended for reaching out and recognizing the fact that young women of color have a different dynamic from others. This is a very good start, and (it’s a summit) that I look forward to seeing year after year.”

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