Any college campus can be an intimidating place. Feelings of isolation are not uncommon for undergraduate and even graduate students. For black women on campus, that sense of disengagement is often heightened. MIT wanted to address this issue while supporting the continued success of its black women students. This was the impetus behind the collaborative initiative, My Sister’s Keeper, launched last year with the goal of building community for black women at MIT.
"We wanted something unique," says Helen Elaine Lee, Director of the MIT Program in Women's and Gender Studies (WGS) and Founder of the initiative. "We hope to provide emotional and psychological support, foster kinship and community, strengthen academic performance, and cultivate engagement in social, political, and cultural matters beyond the classroom."
"I remember what it was like to be a college student in a new environment," says Karinthia Louis, a program manager for MIT Sloan Executive Education who also serves on the planning committee for My Sister's Keeper. "You're away from home, you automatically feel out of place. It's easy to stay in your bubble. My Sister's Keeper can change that by offering a variety of memorable experiences to bring black women on campus together."
The group's inaugural gathering last fall drew more than 160 people to the R&D Commons on campus. Attendees were surveyed about what they most wanted from the organization, and the responses revealed that black women students want someone they can turn to for mentoring and advice.
The organization has created "sister circles" to provide this connection--small groups of five or six students, staff, and faculty united by common interests. The circles are encouraged to meet regularly and share experiences. Each circle deliberately teams undergraduates with at least two older women. "Our goal is to build bonds and mentoring relationships. But we also want it to be mutual, so that we can learn from each other," say Louis.
In addition to the sister circles, My Sister's Keeper aims for four events each year that bring the wider organization together, including a health and wellness fair, a careers activity, and a film series. Overall, women engaged in the program include undergraduate students (30%), graduate students (25%), and faculty and administrators (45%).
"Many of the women who take part in the program didn't realize there were that many black women on campus. 200 people attended an event this year. It was amazing," says Louis. "The look of relief on their faces was priceless."
My Sister's Keeper had a successful vision board event in December that may become an annual event. The group is also planning an end-of-the-year event in May. Most recently, the initiative hosted its second alumnae panel discussion as part of an on-campus career event. The panel discussion in its entirety can be viewed on the My Sister's Keeper web page.
Fatima Smith, an Administrative Assistant in the Office of Minority Education, is one of many staff members participating in My Sister's Keeper. "When I went to college, it was difficult to be away from home. I'm looking to give back," she says. "As women, sometimes we need each other."
"It's nice to see there are women you can look up to and relate to in different ways than your typical advisor and academic people," says Jasmin Palmer, a sophomore in mechanical engineering who says she has not been exposed to many black women in science and engineering. "To have a support group makes it more feasible and possible to succeed here."
"Participants are telling us that they are so happy there is something like this for them to be a part of," says Louis. "We’re here to make sure their presence on campus isn't lost. I remind them, 'You made it to MIT--that's a big deal!' Our job is making these women feel welcome. They are so grateful for the cohorts, and it's wonderful to watch them thrive. We're looking forward to watching this Sisterhood grow and continue to have a positive impact at MIT."
Top: Karinthia Louis (third from left) with My Sister's Keeper participants earlier this year.
Above: My Sister's Keeper Planning Committee members (from left) Eboney Hearn (Executive Director, Engineering Outreach Programs), Ayida Mthembu (Associate Dean, Student Support Services), and Helen Elaine Lee (My Sister's Keeper Founder, Director of Women and Gender Studies Program, MIT School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences).