In honor of the anniversaries on campus — the 50th anniversary of the BCC, 50th anniversary of the Black Studies Program, and 25th anniversary of the Chester Children’s Chorus — the college is Celebrating Black Excellence through programming for this year. The Phoenix, in addition to event coverage, will be publishing features of students on campus who embody Black Excellence in the many forms it takes.
Alexandria Rensing ’21 is a Physics major and Computer Science minor interested in expanding and diversifying the field of STEM and the campus as a whole. In her time at Swarthmore, she has been involved in activities and jobs geared toward this interest, such as being a Physics grader, a math coach for the Chester Children’s Chorus, a research assistant in Professor Hilary Smith’s lab, and a Multicultural Recruitment Intern for the Admissions Office.
Since Rensing has been at Swarthmore, she has noticed the lack of diversity on the campus. She uses her platform as an MRI to make steps towards rectifying it.
“I chose to work as a multicultural recruitment intern, because I just think it’d be nice if Swarthmore could get more diversity on this campus,” said Rensing. “The main thing I’m concerned with is diversity in STEM. It is one of the more lacking subjects in diversity, not just for Black students, but everyone because it’s pretty much the same type of people everywhere. I don’t just focus on STEM, I focus on all grounds.”
Rensing’s attention to diversifying the STEM field comes from being one of the few Black, female students in her major, which she believes that colleges could do more to help.
“So as a physics major, who is a Black woman, it’s pretty uncommon in the physics world. For instance, Swarthmore, just got a Black female professor in the physics department, Professor Cacey Bester. And there’s a couple handful of us running about, but I do think the department, and colleges in general, could do more to recruit young Black physics/just general STEM majors,” said Rensing.
With being one of the few people in her major that looks like her, Rensing feels as though there is a certain level of pressure to be outstanding in these spaces.
“You kind of feel that sometimes, like you have to prove yourself because you’re one of the few people representing your group, so you want to be outstanding. There can be pressure and a lot of imposter syndrome that comes with that especially when you’re not doing great and you think, ‘do I really belong here?’” said Rensing.
In realizing that, Rensing has wanted to take the initiative to make Black physicists and other STEM majors feel welcomed in their departments. However, with not many Black students in these departments, it has proven difficult for her.
“For me, it’d be really cool if there was like, a Black physics or like computer science group. But obviously it’s really hard to make these groups when there’s just not enough people. You have to find five people in the group and I can’t find five,” said Rensing. “I can make these groups, and I can establish them for maybe someone in the future. Maybe there could be more Black physicists if there was a Black group in general. When you’re in these situations like mine, it kind of sucks.”
While it is challenging for Rensing at times being a Physics major, some of Swarthmore’s professors have proven to be supportive and helpful of her academic endeavors.
“Here at Swarthmore, most of the professors I’ve had I haven’t had a problem with. Most of them are pretty encouraging and help me. They are helping me now, so I can go to a National Black Physicists Conference in November, and there was no one questioning, ‘should I be there or not?’ They’re all saying go and present my poster that I did with my research this summer,” said Rensing.
Aside from providing Rensing with academic help, Swarthmore’s Black Cultural Center is a unique and welcoming space that she believes is making a lasting impression on the campus in supporting Black excellence.
“The BCC is always a good place to go. I mean, I’m really happy that Swarthmore has something like that because I know a lot of places don’t really have a Black culture center — a whole space, a whole house, just dedicated to it,” said Rensing. “There are classrooms and study rooms, and all kinds of stuff. It’s a really unique space. And I do think that by having that, a dean [Dean Dion Lewis], and that setup, is so that it’ll last. That’s a really good thing they’ve done to support Black excellence.”
For Rensing, Black excellence takes many forms and is rooted in the steps the Black community is making toward a better future.
“Our community is a supportive community on all fronts. Black excellence is just like succeeding as a Black person in all types of ways: emotionally, academically, mentally, or, you know, just being okay,” said Rensing. “Black people face a lot of problems with a lot of things. It can be hard being the only one in the class and that’s not just going to affect you academically, it’s going to affect you emotionally. So, I mean, I guess Black excellence, would be overcoming these things, and then trying to make a better future.”
In Rensing’s experience, steps towards furthering Black excellence on Swarthmore’s campus are on a micro or community level, not so much at the college or administration level.
“Students try to help improve things in their situation, most of the time in whatever they’re doing for the people that come after them. I mean, when you see most changes, you see it on a smaller level. Like, oh, a new female Black professor just got hired by the department, or you see somebody trying to tutor in Chester and get more Black people involved in community and charity work,” said Rensing.
For Rensing, the lack of Black students in STEM is a wide problem in the education system, but she believes that Swarthmore is taking steps to diversify more in the future.
“I have some qualms and complaints. But I think I more so have qualms and complaints about the world we live in than Swarthmore. Like, it’s not a lot of Black STEM majors, and it’s not necessarily Swarthmore’s fault,” said Rensing. “There’s not a lot just in general. That’s, I think, more, in terms of education, and more of a primary education problem but Swarthmore does try.”