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"You own your own education"
STANFORD -- It seems obvious from their accomplishments that Quintus Jett and Judith Segura both were cut out for graduate school.
With an Ivy League bachelor's degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, and two years' work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Jett came to Stanford for a master's degree and soon applied to the Ph.D. program in industrial engineering. He's now working on his thesis and was recently a finalist in a dissertation proposal contest.
Segura arrived with dual bachelor's degrees in physics and engineering, plus a published scientific paper and a year-long physics fellowship in England. Now, with her master's in mechanical engineering completed, she has started her doctoral work in John Eaton's lab with research in computational fluid dynamics.
As careers often do in hindsight, their progress seems inevitable. But Jett says that a few years ago, he never would have considered trying for a Ph.D. And Segura says flatly, "I would not be here without affirmative action opening the door."
While many of her peers cut their teeth on undergraduate research projects at highly competitive schools like MIT, Caltech and Stanford, Segura's degree is from California State University at Fullerton. (The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she inspired three of her brothers and sisters to study engineering as well.) Without a specific effort by Stanford to take a chance on students from less well-known schools, Segura says, her impressive resume might not have been impressive enough.
"Although I had much to my credit, so did many people from MIT and of course, it's a different education they're getting," she says. There is a perception that students from less competitive schools are less well-prepared, and Segura says that in part it's true. "I do have to work a little harder. But that is one thing affirmative action has done for me offer me that opportunity to show that I could."
Jett says that he never considered a Ph.D. before he came to Stanford. An African American from a family of civil servants, he says his parents were concerned that his education should lead to a secure place in society and a job. His grandmother had ambitions to earn her doctorate in mathematics, but as a young African American woman growing up in the South, she knew that was just a dream. Jett said in many ways a doctorate still seems somewhat a fantasy to his family. "There's an element of faith to this," he said.
Stanford was the first place where he was encouraged to think about a Ph.D., in directed study with James Jucker, chair of industrial engineering. "He was able to show me that I had the ability to do this kind of work," says Jett. But he says he was lured into the doctoral program by a chance to study something that has fascinated him all his life organizational behavior with Kathleen Eisenhardt, one of the leaders in the field.
This sort of outreach and encouragement could help many potential scholars, says Jett. "I think there are a lot of people of all backgrounds who never find the Ph.D., and would be enriched by it," he says. He adds that the university and his academic field also have gained from outreach efforts aimed specifically at minorities, because each group comes to the table with a new perspective.
"There is a sense of relevancy that I always want to bring to work in the academe," Jett says. "Yes, I want to be a great researcher, yes I understand that specialized knowledge has import. But I also want to make my work clear to people outside the field. I encounter that in most other African American doctoral students. We don't want to be in an ivory tower. We want to bring intellectual fervor to the world as well."
Both Jett and Segura credit their advisers and the strong support of the other students in their research groups for helping them along the long path they must tread to get their doctorates. As the only woman in her branch of mechanical engineering, Segura says she also welcomes the company of her roommates, three other minority women seeking doctoral degrees. And Jett draws energy from the Black Ph.D. Forum, a periodic gathering of African Americans across all disciplines.
"Experiencing a place like Stanford has changed me," Segura says. "I was always very grateful for the opportunities I've had. [For a while] I felt like I'm a guest here, I have to be careful what I say and don't say. I think a lot of minority students have that attitude about their education.
"One thing that I have learned here is that you own your own education. None of us would be here if we didn't like challenges, but most of us have never failed at what we do, and failure is scary. If I'm going to learn, I'm going to [have to speak up] and sometimes say things that are wrong, and learn from that.
"I am lucky [to be here], but I am the one who has to make this happen."