Since I was a little girl, people have often told me that I was different from what some folks consider to be the typical Black girl and Black woman. I was smart. I was an exception. For a long time, I’ve resisted this stereotype. Now, I proclaim that all Black girls and Black women are exceptional and smart. If not, how, then, have we thrived in this country fraught with an oppressive and traumatizing history against Black girls and women?
Black women and men who came before me created an environment where I could pursue whatever educational field I wanted. They persevered and practiced their faith in God and believed that all things were possible. These giants include my parents and 14 siblings who supported me, prayed for me and opened doors of opportunity for me. I stand on their shoulders and am eternally grateful for their sacrifice and perseverance.
I had a great undergraduate experience at Southern University, a Historical Black College and University where I earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. However, as I grew into adulthood and pursued a higher degree in STEM at the University of Southern California (USC) — a predominantly white institution — and an engineering career, the message changed: I did not belong. I was not smart. I was treated as though I was a threat. People made incorrect assumptions about me. I experienced stereotyping and microaggressions that closed many doors of opportunity. Some classmates and professors at USC challenged me on a daily basis. After earning my master’s degree in computer engineering, I worked as an engineer on high speed transport systems for data transmission. My professional colleagues often excluded me from consequential conversations, and I had to battle the privilege that my colleagues possessed.
I proclaim that all Black girls and Black women are exceptional and smart.
Still, my faith and my Lord have sustained me. I think of the hymn “My Help” when I pray and ask for help from the Almighty. The hymn begins, “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord — the Lord who made heaven and earth.” When I look toward the hills of the beautiful Rocky Mountains, it reminds me of this hymn and my prayer.
Being courageous and comfortable in unfamiliar places is important to my story. I describe my experiences using the images of the glass door, the glass floor and the glass ceiling.
To gain access, I had to break down the glass door. I could see in but was not always welcomed. I would think about the Bible verse that says, “Knock, and the door will be opened to you.” But before I could enter, I had to shatter the glass door. Many good people helped me break it down, answering my prayers and encouraging me to walk through the glass door that had been closed for so long — and for many who came before me — I was grateful. God answered my prayers.
To find opportunity, I had to crack the glass floor. After I broke down the door, I had to walk into spaces that were unfamiliar and often unwelcoming. I frequently walked into rooms where others looked through me, as if I were invisible. My prayers were answered again when I was able to connect with good, supportive people from a variety of backgrounds, identities and races, who helped me break down the unhelpful assumptions of that glass floor.
Lastly, to emerge as a leader, I had to break the glass ceiling. With the support of my faith and my community, I shattered that last barrier to my success and am continuing to break down more obstacles every day. Now, whenever I lift my hands in praise, I’m honoring my own journey and all those who have come before, breaking through that glass ceiling.
Tanya Ennis (PhDEdu’21) is the director of the BOLD (Broadening Opportunities through Leadership and Diversity) Center in the College of Engineering and Applied Science. She is passionate about giving students the creative capacity to achieve and exceed their goals, bringing a wealth of knowledge from both her professional and educational experience to her teaching and advising.
Photos by Matt Tyrie