34th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Breakfast of MIT
Ensuring Educational Access: Our Challenge, Our Opportunity
Remarks by Jamira Cotton
Presented: February 21, 2008
Good Morning. I am Jamira Cotton. I am a senior. I am a student in the Department of Chemical Engineering. But, I am most defined by the fact that I am a Black woman at MIT. It has taken four years at the Institute for me to have a greater understanding of what that experience is. But, more importantly, a greater understanding of what I believe it has the potential to become.
Looking back, it was in the seventh grade at a gifted and talented school that I initially came to realize that I was a Black female student. I was one of only five; I stood out. It was then that I first felt the burden, that burden which so many of my fellow students and those before me have felt, of representing my entire community. When I entered public high school, and saw that I was no longer such a small minority, I thought it would be a different experience. But then I realized not only did I need to be the smart enough black girl for my white peers, but I had to be the black enough smart girl for my black peers. As a black student, I had to care about my schoolwork, but I had to be committed to my community. I had to be what Dr. WEB Dubois termed the Talented Tenth.
Written in 1903, he explained that it was up to the one in ten Black Americans who were given access to higher education to elevate the race and carry the community forward. Today, this fraction has changed and continues to rise, but the charge for us to have impact remains the same. As part of this new Talented Tenth, it is still not enough for us to simply be concerned with our own academic success-- we must be concerned about and committed to the success of our community. Our impact does not have to be as broad as Dr. Kings to live out these ideals, but we must have impact.
And so, here I am, given access to one of the best educational institutions in the nation, according to all of the popular conceptions of what an excellent institution is. But what about considering the best education as defined by Martin Luther King in The Purpose of Education? He said that: We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character--that is the goal of true education. So the question I raise is: Is MIT creating an environment that successfully nurtures the type of education that these visionaries have said is so vital?
This year, some fellow students and I have been working on a research project under the guidance of Tobie Weiner in the Political Science Department to try to unravel this question. We have tried to understand if black women at MIT are having a successful educational experience. MIT has done an amazing job at developing my problem solving ability, but this is a problem that I had the hardest time even trying to begin to solve. How does one even define success at MIT? We can not just consider her GPA, her participation in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, or connectivity to faculty, although these are all very important markers of success. But how do we measure her character and, as WEB Dubois demands, her ability: To be the group leader, the one who sets the ideals of the community, directs its thoughts and heads its social movements.
Character and this charge to be a leader were nurtured in me from birth by my parents. They never failed to remind me that, through Christ, I could do all things, and that I must. It was further developed after I completed the MITES program in 2003 and Dr. Karl Reid left me and 72 other students believing we could do anything, and knowing that we must. So again, I ask, does the undergraduate experience at MIT further this molding of community leaders? Am I leaving with a more mature understanding of that sense of responsibility from my parents, the exhilaration I had from MITES, the charge and urgency given to me by my forefathers? Does every student, of every race, leave knowing that they are the Talented Tenth? Are we being reminded? Who is holding us accountable?
I appreciate what MIT has done for me, and what I have been able to do for it. But I know there is more to be done. My education is not validated by just my GPA or the job I leave with, but rather by the legacy I will leave in the community that helped me get to MIT. Our challenge as a higher institution is to ensure that every student is receiving the best education they need for what they must do. I look at my class ring, and see the symbol of: Mens et Manus. But we must never forget that mind and hand-- they are incomplete, and un-alive, without heart. Thank you.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 27, 2008 (download PDF).