By Jonathan Lopez

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Raymok Ketema understands the difficulties associated with pursuing higher education as a minority student. As a first-generation African American college student Ketema had to learn to navigate the education system on her own. After she received her bachelor’s degree in Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara, Ketema went to Ohio State University to complete her master’s degree in African American Studies and decided to return to UCSB for her PhD in History.

Currently, Ketema is also working as a project manager at the Center for Black Studies Research where she is a part of a team looking at user preference in the field of engineering. The term “user preference” refers to the ways in which students can most effectively learn in a classroom setting, which is different for every person. Through this study, Ketema hopes to shed light on the many barriers faced by women and students of color when attempting to enter a field such as engineering.

Ketema’s belief in the need for minority representation in academia has inspired her to get her PhD. She hopes that through her writing and teaching she can inspire future generations of students, and specifically historically underrepresented students, to strive for more in their education.

In a recent interview, Raymok Ketema discussed why she perseveres, in the knowledge that the work she is doing is for the advancement of her community.

Q: Can you start by telling us something about your background?

A: I was born and raised in Berkeley, California, but my parents immigrated to the US from a small country in East Africa called Eritrea. They ended up having to leave the country because there was this big war going on and they had to flee. So, I have always been motivated by the sacrifices that my parents had to make for me and my siblings. I think that has definitely inspired me to keep striving for more.

Q: What is the work that you’re doing at the Center for Black Studies Research?

A:  Basically, it’s looking at user preferences in engineering departments, paying particular attention to women and people of color. That has been interesting for me because [Center Director] Dr. Sharon Tettegah has been trained more as a psychologist and has done more quantitative research. Coming from the humanities, I am very much trained in qualitative research so it’s definitely forcing me to be interdisciplinary and expand my methodologies.

Q: What do you mean by “user preferences”?

A: It’s somewhat like a learning style. There are different ways in which one can receive information and what students prefer. We’re trying to pinpoint if there is any direct correlation between race, gender and user preference within engineering. Engineering is one of those programs that is white and male-dominated. We are trying to see what it is about engineering and the way that they teach engineering that discourages women and people of color.

Q: Why is it so crucial to have diversity in fields like engineering?

A: I think diversity in general is super important. In the fields that yield the most income, students of color are generally discouraged from entering them. Engineers are important to our world and it is a huge field. If we had more engineers of color focusing on problems within their communities, we would have more people working on the more relevant problems of the world. We would have engineers fixing issues in low-income communities, creating new devices, being innovative in these spaces. We need more people of color doing that. Representation definitely matters and the reason so many are discouraged is because they don’t see themselves there. 

Q: How does interdisciplinarity fit into this?

A: I think academia thrives on classifications and categories. People have been trying for a really long time to push against these categories and that’s why you see a historian using ethnographic methods or you might see an English scholar referring to historical work. We need more work that’s cutting across boundaries. Those are the ones that will help marginalized communities the most because marginalized communities are the ones that get left out the most when we have these hardcore classifications and categories.

Q: What would you say the future holds for STEM?

A: I think there are so many young people of color that are totally qualified and can thrive in STEM. And minority communities are pushing for STEM to be more accessible. What is it specifically about engineering that makes people not want to pursue it in the same way as maybe sociology or history? I almost feel like it’s because we don’t make things relevant to people. If it’s not relevant to me then why would I want to do it? If engineering was presented to me as “you can go back to Eritrea and help engineer these dams that will help provide clean water to the whole country,” maybe that would be more interesting.

Q: What are your plans for your future?

A: As of right now I want to be a professor of African history. I want to undo the work that has been done on students when it comes to Africa. Nobody knows anything about Africa, so I want to shed light on that. Eventually I would like to teach in a black country. As long as I’m working with my community, I think I’ll be all right.

Q: What would you say to someone considering the humanities?

A: Trust yourself. Humanities is one of those fields that allows you to question things. If you have a question, trust yourself and ask it. If something doesn’t feel right, trust yourself and seek other counsel. It’s probably for a reason. Once you get to this level, push back.

Jonathan Lopez is a UC Santa Barbara student majoring in Sociology who will graduate this spring.