The Current

Black PhD students call out inequity in Canadian academia

Black students in Canada say they face low expectations from professors and have no mentors. PhD student Huda Hassan is offering to help aspiring women of colour with grad school applications in an effort to promote greater diversity in higher education.
PhD student Huda Hassan has offered her help to black women applying to graduate schools and the response has been impressive. (Matt Janicki/flickr cc)

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Recently, Huda Hassan provided a simple offer on Twitter — to help black women applying to graduate schools.

Hassan's tweet has been shared more than 2,500 times and has helped start a conversation about diversity in university campuses in Canada.

The PhD student at the University of Toronto's Women and Gender Studies Institute tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti how her experience applying for a PhD program prompted her tweet as a way to pay it forward.

"I did luckily receive some support from strangers who were black women, who were all already in academia, and who already understood how important it was for me to not only get support from them and get into this program but that it was a very lonely process."

Hassan has received 120 applications from young black women — and some men — from all over Canada, the U.S. and even parts of East Africa.
PhD student Sam Tecle says the undergraduate population on campus is diverse but not in PhD student programs. (University of the Fraser Valley/flickr cc)

"I've also been getting a lot of incredible support from black faculty who've been hearing about this both again in Canada and the U.S., who've been offering their help and their support, reaching out trying to initiate conversation."

Hassan says as a teaching assistant she is continuously mistaken for a student, and it's an example that Sam Tecle can relate to. He's a PhD student on the executive committee of the Black Graduate Students Collective at York University.

"I've been a student at York since 2002 — three, four degrees later and I still get asked what I'm doing on campus. Where am I going? Why am I here?" Tecle tells Tremonti where he says people are taken aback when he says he's getting a PhD in sociology.

"We don't populate these spaces as we're supposed to."

Tecle says the undergraduate population is diverse but that diversity doesn't reach up to PhD student programs.

"We don't form critical masses in our departments so very often we have to seek support or communities of care by our own making — by finding Huda at U of T, or finding the Collective of Black Graduate Students ... at York — just to make sure we kind of survive and finish."

Professor Malinda Smith gives Canadian campuses a failing grade on diversity. (Umair Khan/flickr cc)

University of Alberta professor Malinda Smith tells Tremonti that very little has changed for black students since her experience in graduate school over 25 years ago.

"We had to basically survive on our own and to find networks of support."

Smith, co-author of The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities, says critical scholars are moving away from the concept of diversity "because it acts as a cover or mask for the persistence of racial inequity and racial injustice."

"In 2016, 40 per cent of students that entered first year in Canada were visible minorities, racialized minorities and of course black students, Chinese students, South Asian students — the numbers vary but this is not reflected in the professorial ... or reflected in university leadership."

"The only time universities seem to draw on us is for the video, or the brochure, or the website images."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar and Samira Mohyeddin.