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Coping with Racial Trauma in Doctoral Study

By Kimberly Truong, Ed.M.'04, and Samuel Museus on September 4, 2012 1:32 PM

Let us introduce you to John. He was the first in his family to graduate from college and came from a low-income background. John’s advisors, a White couple, recruited him into his graduate program. They promised him four years of full funding and touted the fact that he would be the first Vietnamese American to graduate from their doctoral institution. After John’s arrival, his advisors proactively mentored one of his White peers and gave her many opportunities to conduct research and publish, but did not offer John the same assistance. He was forced to seek out these opportunities on his own with the help of other faculty. Two weeks before the end of the fall semester of his second year, his advisors ended their advising relationship and told him that they were going to cut off his funding immediately because they felt he was not passionate about research. As a result, John was left on his own to look for funding sources. At the time of this decision, he had already published five peer-reviewed journal articles.

This is one example of numerous racism-related encounters experienced by John and other participants in our study, which examines strategies for coping with racial trauma in doctoral programs. These encounters caused symptoms of racism-related stress and racial trauma such as depression, dissociation, anxiety, nausea, stomach cramps, headaches, rashes, and internalization of the racism. In addition to dealing with the daily stresses of doctoral studies, John had to cope with racism and racial trauma and figure out how to respond to it.

What did John do? He suppressed his reactions, remained cordial to his former advisors, and sought other prospective advisors. More specifically, John responded by seeking social support, seeking treatment, achieving as a form of resistance, advocating for peers of color, and reflecting on racism. He also sought medical attention for his rashes and therapy from a colleague pursuing her degree in mental health counseling.

To read more, visit Harvard Education Publishing Group's Voices in Education blog.