Imposter syndrome, not seeing people similar to you in your classes, and being the first in your family to attend graduate school.

These are experiences that underrepresented members of the University of Toronto community, including Black students, face. To overcome feelings like imposter syndrome — the feeling of being underqualified or undeserving of your accomplishments — Black Researchers Initiative to Empower (BRITE) strives to lift up the students around them — both at the undergraduate and graduate level.

The Varsity spoke to Ikran Ali, a third-year PhD student at U of T’s Institute of Medical Sciences (IMS) and the president of BRITE; Zahra Yussuf, a second year Master’s student in pharmacology and vice-president of BRITE; and Mohamed Adam, a recent Master of Science graduate from the IMS and BRITE’s treasurer about their mission to support undergraduate and graduate students at U of T who are studying science and medicine. BRITE does this by providing them with opportunities for learning and mentorship through meetings and community events.

The inspiration behind BRITE

Ali joined BRITE last year to meet like-minded students who share similar experiences navigating the graduate school system while being underrepresented.

“I had personal struggles like imposter syndrome where I didn’t really see many people who looked like me in my classes,” said Ali, reflecting on her start to graduate school. “I felt out of place… like I didn’t belong, that I was a fraud.”

Ali reflected that she has also had academic struggles, such as difficulties finding guidance for scheduling committee meetings, applying for scholarships, and learning how to work effectively as a graduate student.

Adam shared similar experiences with Ali. “When I first started [graduate] school, I didn’t see people that looked like me,” he said. “I thought I needed a space to feel comfortable, and that’s how I got into this club, because being with other Black researchers [enables you] to express yourself, and also form connections that really help you toward throughout your academic career.”

Yussuf noted that these challenges can also apply to undergraduates considering graduate school and alumni who have recently completed their degrees. She reflected that it can be difficult to figure out the graduate school admissions process, what to look for in a supervisor, and how to find employment after graduating by yourself.

Ali reflected that finding a place of belonging empowers you to think, “Yeah, I can do this.” She continued, “There are other people who are in my same position, and you have them to support you.”

To Ali, the creation of community is especially important for students who are first in the family to attend graduate school. “A lot of us are first generation,” she said. “A lot of us don’t know people who’ve done this before. So just to be able to help each other out, it’s really important for the club and for us.”

Providing learning opportunities for students

To support undergraduate and graduate students, BRITE has hosted professional and social events throughout the year.

On January 31, BRITE hosted a workshop to help undergraduate students find research opportunities over the summer. “We found graduate students, including our club members, to mentor those undergrads who are looking for those positions,” said Adam.

“We [also] have social events because, once again, one of our missions is to create that space where students can feel comfortable. We think that’s really important,” he added. Among other events, BRITE hosted a “Navigating Grad School & Social” session in October, and a game night in November.

BRITE will be hosting a screening of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on February 28, which will be followed by a moderated discussion on race and informed consent in health care.

Lessons learned from experiences in BRITE

Reflecting on their experiences with BRITE, Adam said: “I think I learned how to become a better mentor, how to share resources, and how to network better, just through being a part of BRITE. I have [also] met a bunch of new people.”

Ali noted that BRITE has enabled her to “to see that we are qualified to be where we are, and be confident in what we’re doing, [while] not comparing ourselves to different people who are at different stages of their graduate or academic careers.”

Yussuf reflected on the value of being “[surrounded] by people who are [there to] support you, because that makes a massive difference in how you feel, and your confidence, and how you go about your degree, and your overall experience. And I think it’s so important.”

Ali encouraged research students seeking advice to take the initiative to find opportunities. “I know a lot of people are too shy to ask for things, but there’s only so much people can [do to] help you if you’re not telling people what you need. And so [if you are] just… able to break out of your shell and ask people, a lot of people are willing to help.”

Adam agreed, saying, “Don’t be too shy to seek out help because more than often, we are willing to help, because we’ve been in the same position before.”

“We really want to see other students succeed as well.”