Two years ago, I faced one of the most difficult decisions of my life yet: where to go to college. Where would I spend my parents’ savings and the next four years of my life? Like many MIT students, I was picking between top institutions. Because I knew I wanted to study computer science, I had narrowed it down to my top three: MIT, Caltech, and the University of Texas at Austin (UT) for its Turing Scholars Program. It was difficult to discern the difference academically between the top three schools, so I chose with my heart.
Through a series of campus visits, I had the opportunity to interact and bond with students from all three universities. While the students everywhere were passionate, funny, and hardworking, I noticed that I was more likely to interact with black students at MIT.
According to MIT’s Office of Institutional Research, Black and African-American students comprise 5.6 percent of MIT’s undergraduate population, compared to the 15 percent of college students nationwide, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2012.
At the time, this was the largest community I found in my three options.
Caltech had four black women in its entire undergraduate population of almost 1,000 and only one tenured black faculty member at the time that I applied. As I progressed through the cafeteria line on a preview day in the fall, an enthusiastic black female upperclassman saw me, navigated the sea of people, and hugged me. “I’m so glad you’re considering Caltech! There are so few of us!” I tried to smile back but I could not ignore this disheartening glimpse into her life on campus.
During the preview days at UT, I would check the room at the beginning of each session to evaluate the diversity of the students I might live and work with. Each time, I would turn to my parents and say, “You and I are the only ones.”
At UT Austin, diversity is a tricky subject on a campus where more than 90 percent of students are Texas residents. Texas residents are automatically admitted if they graduate within the top seven percent of their high school class. This law increases geographical diversity within the state and is partially the reason why the university has more than 20 percent Hispanic students.
However, still only four percent of undergraduates at UT Austin identify as Black, and when I asked the director of the Turing Scholars Program for contact information of a black alumnus, I received the email of a graduate from the Class of 2001.
My recruitment experience at MIT differed from the others because students led my experience of campus. This led me to meet many more people who truly believed that MIT was not only the best school for me, but also the best home and community. While I don’t really remember much of what happened at CPW, I will never forget my experience in the inaugural class of the Ebony Affair Fly-In Program.
The Black Students’ Union (BSU) presents the Ebony Affair Gala in April every year to celebrate black excellence in the MIT community. As a high school senior participating in the fly-in program, I ate catered food, danced to what some call the “family reunion mix,” and enjoyed being surrounded by smart, successful, black peers.
In 2014, the BSU and the Admissions Office piloted a fly-in program for prefrosh who had been admitted through Early Action. The weekend before CPW, I flew to MIT and spent three days learning about the lives of students. I crashed someone’s birthday party, and even went hacking. Of the 19 prefrosh that MIT flew in for Ebony Affair, 18 of us committed to MIT.
While the students wanted to impress us with MIT, they told honest stories about how difficult MIT was, what had helped them, their regrets, and their joys. The program achieved an unprecedented yield rate of over 94 percent because it provided community without fanfare. The friends I made at Ebony Affair are the foundation of the friend group I have today. I chose to come to MIT because of my experience during the fly-in program.
Two years later, I know I made the right choice.
As an active member of the BSU and its current Attorney General, I have become ever more involved in the black community through work to reform campus policies and culture. Now, I am the one helping plan Ebony Affair with a renewed belief in the benefits of the community we have. Without this community, I would not have had the opportunity to ask advice or vent to people who understand the challenges I face.
Until recently, I did not truly understand what it meant to be a black woman in the tech industry. At MIT, almost 40 percent of Course 6 undergraduate students are women, but according to the American Society for Engineering Education, the national average is less than 15 percent. On top of that, only about two percent of the workers at large and well-known tech companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and LinkedIn identify as Black. My community on campus allows me the space to vent and express my desires without the concern that my actions will represent my entire gender or race. I could not combat the prejudices, fight the glass ceilings, and be happy in my career without the support network I have built at MIT thanks to the BSU.
Miranda McClellan is a member of the Class of 2018.