The Sistah Network: Enhancing the Educational and Social Experiences of Black Women in the Academy
By Nicole M. Joseph and Evette Allen
We firmly believe that spaces for Black women in higher education are essential to their development, sense of belonging, and overall success. Upon finding a gap in this area for the current student organizations on a predominantly white campus and in an effort to create an academic space for Black women, Dr. Nicole M. Joseph worked alongside key administrators to create a group that would be titled the “Sistah Network.” The group was started with the purpose to provide academic and social support for Black women pursuing their doctoral degrees. Dr. Evette L. Allen was in the first cohort of doctoral students in the Sistah Network. Black women faculty and staff were also invited to group meetings to serve as mentors and to support the graduate students on their journeys. The group met once a month during the regular academic calendar with summers off. During the monthly meetings, faculty and staff across campus presented on topics such as imposter syndrome, publishing while in graduate school, developing professionally, and much more. We evaluated each academic session and received success stories of those in the program and overwhelming positive feedback. Based on the feedback, the decision was made to move forward with a qualitative study on the experiences of the graduate students in the program and the women who mentored them. The principles of Black Feminist Thought highlight the unique experiences of Black Women and aligned perfectly with the mission of the Sistah Network. Thus, the frameworks Black Feminist Thought and Critical Race Theory were used to underline the ways in which racism and sexism impacted Black women studying, teaching, and serving in academia. Upon reviewing the article, readers will learn more about the ways the Sistah Network impacts the academic, social, and emotional experiences of women in the program in affirming ways.
The purpose of this study was to investigate the experiences of women in the Sistah Network, an affinity group at a predominantly White institution, with mentoring goals to enhance the educational and social experiences of Black women in master’s and doctoral programs and their mentors. The authors interviewed 18 women (faculty, staff, and students), conducted observations at Sistah Network meetings, and analyzed exit ticket data to get insight on how the program influenced the academic and social experiences of the women. Critical race theory and Black Feminist Thought were used as theoretical frameworks to interpret the findings. Findings suggest four main themes: (a) the Sistah Network advances identity and empowerment, (b) the Sistah Network contributes to social advantages, (c) the Sistah Network affords emotional benefits, and (d) the Sistah Network promotes academic success. Findings suggest that efforts can be made to implement and sustain variations of mentoring programs for this population of women and other marginalized groups.