Campus & Community

DU’s Sistah Network empowers black women to negotiate graduate programs

When Nicole Joseph read an article describing some of the factors that negatively influence black women pursuing graduate degrees on predominately white campuses, she immediately knew she wanted to do what she could to help prevent the problem at the University of Denver.

Joseph, an assistant professor at DU’s Morgridge College of Education, discovered that mentoring programs went a long way toward helping black women stay in graduate school, so she founded the Sistah Network, an affinity group that gathers black female grad students at DU to discuss their unique challenges.

“We try to problem-solve together on how you navigate the system — working with professors, working with committee members, issues in the classroom, not feeling like you have to speak for the whole race,” Joseph says. “Or, ‘how do you challenge your peers and/or your professor in a way that doesn’t feel threatening?’ You should be able to say whatever you want to say, but we know the reality is that there can be consequences if you don’t navigate.”

The group started in January 2013 with 15 members. Today, more than 90 women are part of the Sistah Network, which meets two to three times each quarter to discuss everything from academics — literature reviews, annotated bibliographies — to the members’ personal and professional accomplishments and goals. The group includes current students, faculty members and alumni.

The Sistah Network also holds its own graduation ceremony each spring and sends out a monthly e-newsletter. It’s all part of an effort to build a community among women who often are the only black members of their graduate programs, says Anthea Johnson Rooen, director for inclusive excellence college access and pipeline programs at DU’s Center for Multicultural Excellence.

“They are often isolated in their programs as the only black women, so it’s important to bring the group together at least once a month,” Rooen says. “It’s that luxury of being in the room with other people who look like you — being able to look around and see faces that look like yours and share similar experiences, when for the past 30 days it’s been just you.”

The Sistah Network also gives its members the opportunity to meet black female professionals — from DU and elsewhere — which helps inspire the DU students’ future careers.

“We have so many black women in the Denver metro area that have these graduate degrees, and the fact that they are willing to take out their time and guide us through the process of completing master’s and PhDs — I was just blown away by it,” says Tanika Vaughn (MA ’13), a Morgridge College alumna and member of the Sistah Network. “It’s that academic support that we really need, because you can sometime get discouraged by the college climate. Just to have people there to say, ‘You can do it; we can push all this stuff aside and just help you really focus on your academics’ — sometimes you don’t get that validation in the classroom.

“That invalidation can really damage your self-esteem, but then to go into the Sistah Network and get all that validation, it just pumps you up for the next week and you go forward.”




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