8 Things I Wish I Knew/Did as a STEM student

By Derrick Tonto ‘19 

Derrick Tonto 

Centre College Class of 2019 

 Behavioral Neuroscience Major (Pre-Med Track) 

Boston, MA (originally from Kumasi, Ghana) 

Derrick Tonto is an Otolaryngology and Pediatric Neurology Medical Scribe for ScribeAmerica. He is looking forward to starting as a research assistant at the Tufts Medical School Health Center in September 2020. Derrick’s favorite experience at Centre was the International Student Ball organized by the International Student Association (ISA).

What 8 things do you wish you knew/did as a Black STEM Major (with an extra)? 

1. More relationships with people in your majorOne thing that really helped me succeed academically, personally and socially at the end of my time there was the relationships I had with other people in my major and field (STEM). At the beginning of my Centre career, I hardly knew anyone in my major. Most of my friends were involved in other fields of study so I mostly studied alone. However, as time went on and I naturally made friends in my major, I noticed some progress in my academics. After this realization, I began to actively make more friends in my classes. With this, I continued to progress, and it helped me graduate college on a stronger note than I began. It is never too late or early to start especially as an underrepresented population in STEM and college in general. You will need support more than your white counterparts. Also, make sure to invite your friends from underrepresented populations into your academic social groups as well. Additionally, have qualified allies. A qualified ally is a person from a non-minority group who excelled in a field and can help you in that field as well. These people may have some privileged aid them succeed in these fields than we as minorities did not have. These allies will potential your success academically and socially. Classes like Organic Chemistry, Calculus, Anatomy and Physiology, Advanced Computer Science classes, Biochemistry etc. are close to impossible to succeed in without group effort – so make this key in your academic journey.  

2. More relationships with faculty and staff Another thing that aided me was building relationships with faculty and staff. I wish I did more of this in college. At first, I was VERY hesitant to even go to office hours. My anticipation of the awkwardness of that first or second conversation with them was enough to repel me from even trying. However, I realized that behind the heavy door of the awkwardness are priceless professional relationships that will aid you grow academically and professionally. Though most professors are not biased, there are several benefits to relationships with them such as advice on how to study, firsthand information on opportunities such as research and internships, and access to their vast network of STEM professionals, jobs etc. I urge each one of you to actively be in constant communication with your professors. They (most of them) love talking to students especially students from underrepresented populations like you. Talk to them about class, internships, their families, THEIR DOGS AND CATS (they love talking about them), get them hip to the transitions in the fast-changing world. They will in turn get you hip to life-changing advice and opportunities.  

3. Be more involved in the Danville community especially when you are on the Pre-med track – One thing I wish I did more was being involved on campus and in the Danville community. I had a very transient relationship with the Centre campus and especially the Danville community. However, I now realize the absurdity of spending most of the last 4 years in a place and making such a small impact. I was too focused on other things. My advice is to be involved in the community and be the change you want to see on the campus and in Danville. Champion changes that will lead to your happiness and success on campus. BE MORE INVOLVED IN THE COMMUNITY OF DANVILLE. Join organizations like Bonner that will give you access to the community. Volunteer and make an impact in the community. This point is most important for pre-professional students (pre-med, pre-dentistry etc.) because GRADUATE INSTITUTIONS ESPECIALLY MEDICAL SCHOOLS will ask you during interviews, “What did you do in your college community?”, “What did you do for others?” Some will even ask for evidence in your applications. You do not want red flags of any kind on your applications to professional programs. We already have enough obstacles in our way to getting into professional schools so eliminate as many as you can now.  

4. Take time to decompress and exercise & 5. Make use of the counseling services at CentreOne thing that helped me stay sane was exercising. Take advantage of the gym and other athletic opportunities. Apart from the neurological benefits, it will also help you decompress, relieve stress and stay fresh. An opportunity that I wish I took advantage of in school is the counselling service at Centre. They are severely underutilized. Being a black STEM student in Centre College and in Kentucky is stressful enough so make it a point to visit these professionals occasionally. Remember you are paying these people so you might as well use them.  

6. Build relationships with people from different backgroundsAnother thing that aided me in my journey at Centre was the relationship I formed with people from different backgrounds. Though Centre is not the most diverse community, it has its fair share of people from different backgrounds. This is your chance to make relationships with people from other backgrounds; to learn about different cultures, try different foods, music etc. that you did not know before. Do not be hesitant to talk to someone radically different from you. I did this at Centre and grew exponentially personally as a result. These relationships may also help academically and professionally as it exposes you to people with different networks, set of expertise and access to opportunities. 

7. Use the professional and academic resources such as the Writing Center and CCPD – As an immigrant from Ghana where we wrote one paper per semester as part of our final examination, writing at the college level at Centre College was extremely challenging for me. I took several Ls (received a bad grade) in classes as a result until I found the Writing Center. The Writing Center will change your life if you are currently in a similar situation. Though they do not help with the content of your paper, they will help you fix all the mechanical parts of your paper. I advise all of you, no matter how good you at writing is, to visit the center as it provides an additional perspective to your paper. Making relationships with people at the CCPD, registrar’s office, finance office, advisors etc will help you survive and even thrive in school and also prepare for your professional life after college (I did not want to mention names but shout out to Julie Graham, Kristi Burch, Dr. Karin Gill, Bob Nesmith, Sharon Duncan, Mindy Wilson and many others for supporting me through TOUGH time). 

8. Be wise about teacher choicesA very delicate but important part of college is picking professors, especially STEM professors. The professor you pick is extremely important. I have had amazing professors who have supported me and others who did not. One piece of advice is to do your research before picking a professor. Ask people who have taken the class before. Another trick to picking the professor is asking another faculty or staff member you are close to about these professors. Faculty and staff members often know each other well and can give you more insight into which professor would be best for you – granted they know your personality.  

Any last words? 

In conclusion, I wish all of you good luck in your journey at Centre. I know it is tough but with perseverance and support from each other, it is not impossible to come out of the fire refined and shining like a jewel, and not in ashes. I am ALWAYS available to chat with anyone of you if you need help with anything. Ask Princess Allotey or any other Black Student Organization (BSO) executive for my contact information and they will provide it.  

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