This summer, as street clashes erupted over a police officer’s shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein monitored the events, many miles away, through television, Facebook, and Twitter. A postdoctoral fellow in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Prescod-Weinstein—who identifies as black—found herself crying through her calculations as she saw a middle-American suburb turned into a war zone.
Watching and reading about the killing of Michael Brown—followed by the indelible scenes of tear-gas canisters and armored tanks—she looked down at her research on theoretical cosmology and thought to herself: “I can’t do this.”
“Who cares about cosmic inflation during the first seconds of the universe’s existence when black people are getting shot left and right by police officers and vigilantes?” she remembers thinking. “I felt guilty. I wanted to go to Ferguson. I wanted to be a body in the streets and a barrier between the police and my people.”
She was not alone.
A number of professors have told me that a summer’s worth of racial turmoil—most prominently in Ferguson, but in a number of other American cities as well—has taken an emotional toll on students of color pursuing advanced degrees. Although mass-media attention to Ferguson has already begun to subside, those students are still struggling as the fall semester gets under way.