November 30th marks the last day of Native American Heritage Month in the United States, so I am particularly excited to share our latest episode, which was recorded in early 2023. Episode 43 features Dr Travis York, the Director of Inclusive STEMM Ecosystems for Equity and Diversity (ISEED) at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). After completing his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Biblical Studies and Higher Education, respectively, Dr York then went on to complete his PhD in Higher Education at the Pennsylvania State University. The pervasive theme throughout our conversation was access: early on, his parents wanted to give him access to greater opportunities through a university education, and now, through ISEED and the STEMM Opportunity Alliance, Dr York and his team are working towards creating a more equitable and accessible STEM enterprise.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Dr Travis York: The United States has never had a STEM equity goal. We've never had a national STEM equity plan. And as we build out that plan, this will give us the opportunity to truly reach an equitable STEM enterprise by 2050. What must we do today, tomorrow, next year, and the year after to actually achieve that? So, SOA [STEMM Opportunity Alliance] has this 2050 timeline, but to quote Dr Martin Luther King Jr., 'It's about the fierce urgency of now.'
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Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we'll be chatting with Dr Travis York, the Director of Inclusive STEMM Ecosystems for Equity and Diversity, ISEED for short, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Dr York previously completed his Bachelor's and Master's degrees at Geneva College and received his PhD in Higher Education Administration from the Pennsylvania State University. I'm thrilled to be chatting with Dr York today about his exceptional work in transforming the STEM landscape to be more equitable, diverse, and inclusive, but let's start from the very beginning—Dr York, what's your story?
TY: So, my story kind of really begins in growing up in the rural southeast. My father's actually 3/4 Native American. Although we didn't really grow up culturally as Native—we were raised off reservation and didn't really have a lot of cultural engagement opportunities—my dad's family really impressed upon myself and my cousins and siblings that this was an important part of our family, so I do think that especially later in life, we started to learn more about how that came into our sphere of experience.
In my family, education was emphasized and, I think, really emphasized from this space of my parents saying, 'Look at how we have really struggled in not having a college education, and we don't want this for you. This is why you need to do really well in school.' It was really clear from an early age for me that my family wouldn't be able to financially support me going to school, so there was this expectation of both I needed to go to college, and also that I needed to figure out a way to pay for that college, which is not an easy thing to do in modern American higher education.
The other thing that was really helpful to me is that while my family was pretty low-middle income, I was around a lot of friends that were more middle-high income, and going to college was just part of their expected and normal thing. It was really through the network of people around us that I found myself going into higher ed and I ended up choosing a really small private liberal arts institution. My public high school was 3000-some students. It was incredibly diverse. And then, I went 12 hours away and went to a college of 1000 students where I didn't even know what a TA (teaching assistant) was. Every course was taught by a faculty member. It was very integrated, it was very academically rigorous, and that was a really exciting difference. It was my first time, I think, really getting out of the region that I had grown up in, experiencing the world in a different place, in a different way.
While I was working with my advisor, I had two majors in my undergrad: one was biblical studies and pre-seminary, and the other was an independent major in the humanities. I focused on the Renaissance, and there weren't many courses at my college <laugh> to take on the Renaissance, so through the power of Google, [I had] learned that there was a Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Oxford University. Thankfully, that really worked out. I got accepted. I was able to enroll in this part of the college. I was at Keble College, and I spent almost a year in England. I did a co-op and then spent a term at Oxford as a student there. That experience of a very different higher education system and a way of teaching... There are no grades. At the end of the term, did you pass or did you fail? There's no grades on your papers or anything like that. That just really sparked in me a whole lot of questions about higher education, and that's what led me into higher ed.
Then I got my Master's in Higher Education. I was first working in student affairs, and it was really in my master's that I had some incredible faculty that I think saw something in me that I did not yet see in myself. I mean, even the idea of going on to graduate school, my family was like, 'What are you doing? Why are you failing at school? Why are you still there?' <Laugh> That's when I then decided to head to Penn State to do my PhD in Higher Ed. But in that process, [I] fell in love with the idea that I could help learn more about how to increase educational equity and student success. I was really focused on, in particular, student success and experiences in my PhD. So, that's kind of where my story begins.
AB: From what I've learned about you thus far, it sounds like a lot of what you do now is about creating safe spaces within academia and within higher education. Could we talk a little bit more about the work that you're doing now?
TY: Yeah, I'm happy to talk about that. [You're] absolutely right. I think the adage of 'research is me-search' is very true in my life. The genesis for this was that while I was going through my PhD, of my cousins and aunts and uncles and parents and whatnot, the only other person that's gone to college is actually my sister. I was helping my sister navigate her process. She started at a community college, then transferred to a four-year institution, at one point in time ended up taking some time off because she had her first child, my nephew, whom I adore, before coming back and completing. As I was helping her navigate all of that, I saw something really, really weird. It was that my sister's experience in higher education was nothing like my experience in higher education, and it was confusing to me and it was weird. At first I was trying to think like, 'Well, maybe it's just because I'm so much smarter than her' <laugh>, which is totally not true! It's totally not true. I was just trying to understand it. I think [with] the convergence of my PhD journey and the personal life that I was experiencing, I started to notice that, I think, my sister's experience was largely because of the fact that she's a woman and the fact that she has more melanin in her skin. So, I mentioned before that we're almost half Native American, half Indigenous. My sister looks much more like the rest of my family. I'm very white looking. I pass as white. I have a lot of privilege associated with being a white man, and even though I'm gay, I present fairly masculinely. I think I'm the receiver of a lot of unearned privilege because of all of those factors. My sister was not the receiver of those, and that became really clear to me, and that's what led me into really looking at how organizational structures of institutions of higher education don't really support all students. They weren't created to from the beginning. While institutions have been changing—I think it's a fallacy to think about colleges and universities as unchanged since they were created decades and decades or centuries and centuries ago, they have changed—but they still have evolving to do to better serve all students. And so, a lot of the work that I've been engaged in over my career has been about helping institutions of higher education, even now K-12, industry and research infrastructure, really understand how institutions and organizations can catalyze and sustain transformation so that they really support equity, It's not about treating people special or anything like that. It's really about opening up these organizations so that they work for all people, because that is what we know we need for tackling the world's most pressing problems. We know that in science in particular, excellence in science is inextricably linked to equity in science.
That's what all of our work actually is now focused on. We actually have over 20 funded initiatives within ISEED. Those range from the entire continuum of STEM education, talent development and workforce development. We have projects that work with undergraduate scientists and scholars with disabilities. We work with scientists with disabilities in helping place them in internships in our entry point program all the way through. We have a program called the Emerging Researchers National Conference, which is one of the largest gatherings of primarily historically underserved undergraduate and graduate students in STEM, where they come and present their research and they compete in presenting their research. [They also] have this incredible experience where they get a ton of professional development and connections to other schools, research centers, and industry. And for many of them, it may be the first time that they're in an enormous ballroom where they don't feel like they're the only, but in fact, they feel like they're in a vast, connected network of scholars of color. It's incredible to see the future of science in that room.
We [also] have programs that really work at building the capacity of institutional leaders to evolve their structures. So, SOA, the STEMM Opportunity Alliance, is really a national effort that we've just launched. We were really privileged to have support from the Doris Duke Foundation that was our angel funder early in this work before it was public, and we've now been joined by 13 additional funders. This national effort is about galvanizing stakeholders to achieve STEM equity and excellence by 2050. The alliance is built on the understanding that diversity in STEM is essential to the scientific enterprise. It's critical for US economic growth and competitiveness and necessary for building a just society to better individuals’ lives. We launched that initiative just this past December, on December 12th . We launched it at the first ever White House Summit on STEM equity and excellence. It was super exciting! There is a recording of it, if anybody wants to check it out! The energy in the room was incredible. It was so exciting. And what we're really doing now, we have a slate of meetings that are now going on almost every month across the country, where we're actually taking this framework that we've drafted around a plan for equity, and we're engaging in small group breakouts in these events with community members, with industry leaders, with education leaders and researchers, and really crafting a truly national strategic plan.
The United States has never had a STEM equity goal. We've never had a national STEM equity plan. And as we build out that plan, this will give us the opportunity to truly reach an equitable STEM enterprise by 2050. What must we do today, tomorrow, and next year and the year after to actually achieve that? So, SOA has this 2050 timeline, but to quote Dr Martin Luther King Jr., 'It's about the fierce urgency of now.'
AB: Alright! Well, before I jump into my next question, I just have to commend you and your colleagues for this amazing work that you're doing. It is vastly interdisciplinary, which I think is incredibly important. You're reaching out to all the important stakeholders, and I think that's something that has often gone overlooked in the past, where you just talk to one very small group, niche group of people who have a particular set of skills. And I mean, when you're talking about STEM affecting everybody, that means you have to involve…
AB/TY (simultaneously): Everybody.
TY: What a novel idea!
AB: I know, right? <Laugh>
TY: Yes, and I'll say, for anybody that wants to learn more about SOA, we have a website, it's www.stemmopportunity.org. People can sign up for our monthly newsletters to let people know [about] upcoming events. But to your point, even this national plan that we're constructing, we will have an open request for information where people will be able to, literally from all over the country, be able to give feedback. Even if you can't make it to one of these meetings, or if your schedule doesn't allow, we really are trying to craft a truly nationwide plan. That's the only way for us to do this. It's the only way for us to truly build a national movement.
AB: Has there been any resistance up until present day about these programs? They are so all inclusive, and it does require a lot of internal change and structural change.
TY: There's always resistance, but that's not abnormal in any sort of change. What's been really encouraging to me, even when I get somewhat disheartened around kind of rates of change, is that, in America, science has been and continues to be one of the unifying spaces within our country. And I think right now, in a time where politically, our country is more divided than we've ever been before perhaps, especially in this past decade, it gives me great joy and hope to see that science and technology infrastructure, medicine, mathematics engineering, social sciences, are a truly bipartisan topic. It has bipartisan support. The House Science Committee, in my opinion, is the highest performing house committee there is. That committee is a bipartisan committee that does incredible, tremendous work. It has done so across multiple administrations. And I think that that is kind of emblematic to me. It was under such great leadership formerly by Eddie Bernice Johnson, and across STEM, [there is bipartisan] support for the National Science Foundation, NIH (National Institutes of Health), DOD (Department of Defense), and Department of Energy. There's bipartisan support and energy around STEM and the STEM workforce.
I do hope that this area can become a salve for America. I hope that by our shared vision for a better tomorrow, through investments in our citizenry, that we continue to have a space where America can become more whole and more united and really focus on how much we are alike and have similar shared goals as a country.
And really, I hope [we] spread that joy and potential to other countries across the world. We do a lot of science diplomacy work here at AAAS. I have a wonderful colleague, Kim Montgomery, who leads an office for that. We see incredible history and promise for how science can be an incredible diplomatic tool... not to say that science is a panacea <laugh>. There's lots of ways that we continue to evolve science and make science better. But I do think that there is something really amazing about science, and it's exciting to be a part of that.
AB: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. It's really exciting to be witness to it and can't wait to see what happens next. I'm hoping that we could jump back in time to give advice to a young you. I wonder if you have thought about what you would tell a young version of yourself about the future, about the work that you're doing, or advice navigating this world of higher education. Do you have a few words of advice for young Travis?
TY: Oh, probably more than a few. I think the words of advice that I would have would really be around telling my younger self that I don't have to hide as much, and that being who you are is your superpower. I think this applies to every single person. We don't need people trying to be someone else. We need people being themselves. That is the way that we really have the greatest strengths of people in our world. And I know for myself, growing up as a queer, two-spirit, biracial person that just didn't look biracial, there was a lot of erasure that was happening around me. And I think I took that on in myself. I mean, some of it I was doing purposely. I was hiding the fact that I was gay. I grew up in a really conservative, religious background, so there was fear of being myself. I think the greatest lesson I have learned through the love and acceptance of those around me is that that is so much weight and that is so limiting to people. And when we let go of that, when shame is no longer the dream killer, we can be who we are meant to be. And that is when we can actually make the biggest impact in the world.
I tell people that I mentor and students that I still get to interact with to fall in love with who they are. Don't be in love with yourself in a narcissistic way, but be in love with being yourself and to just know that your strengths have inherent blind spots, but that you want to really focus on your strengths being the stars that they are, so it's really: love and cherish that and other people will too.
AB: Oh, that is beautiful. I do have an extra question, if you don't mind me asking.
TY: Yeah, I'm happy to.
AB: You said you grew up in a conservative area and you might've been hiding your identity as well. Did you find yourself having to hide your identity when you were at university as well? I know university is oftentimes the space where you can go and be yourself and discover who you are. You were hiding there too?
TY: I was. So, I didn't come out until I was 25, the first year in my PhD program actually. I think early on, when I first started my college career, I was not out to myself yet. I think I was still in a space of like, 'Don't explore. At some point in time, the right girl will come along and everything will just work itself out.' That was the narrative that I had grown up in. Being gay or queer and being a person of faith were not compatible. There were no narratives of that. It's incredible how much those worldview narratives shaped the way that we even think about the world. It was probably the largest challenge of my undergraduate and master's career.
In particular, I have always wanted a family. I've always wanted to be a husband, to potentially have kids. When it became clear to me that what I identified at the time as my same-sex attraction was not going away, what actually threw me into some real turmoil and crisis was that I started to grieve the loss of the idea that I would ever have a family. I'll try not to get emotional... It was the hardest thing I think I've ever had to go through in my life. And I was going through that completely on my own, until I did seek out working with a counselor through my college, and that did not go well. I don't think that they were equipped to deal with sexual identity. They were treating my struggle as if I was an alcoholic and that it was more dependency related. It was a very poor experience that I had in this one case.
When conversion therapy was suggested to me, thankfully, I don't know how or why, but something in my head triggered. And I said, 'I know that that's not appropriate, and that's not okay.' And so, I ended that, and then I started to confide in some family members. My mom was the first person I told. Thankfully, I think I was really at the end of my rope in not being able to talk to people that I knew cared about me, so my mom was the first person I came out to.
As the true rock star she is, she said every right thing. She assured me that she loved me no matter what. She told me that she thought God had actually made me this way, and she was waiting for this day and couldn't be more proud of me. That led to a series of... I have a very non-eventful coming out story where I then started to tell people as quickly as I could. I literally made a list and started scratching people off the list because I'm very Type A. And I was surrounded by people who actually were incredibly supportive and loving to me. And it was the exact opposite of the narrative I had built in my head. The interesting thing to me about it is once I came out, I did not realize prior how much emotional and mental energy that was going into hiding.
It's insane how much time and energy and emotional weight I was giving to [hiding]. Any time somebody asked if they could speak to me, the first thing that would come into my mind was, Has somebody found out? <Chuckle> I had no idea how much pressure and stress I was under until it was no longer there, because it had been there for so long. The incredible thing is that once I came out and I could redirect that emotional energy and that time into things that actually I loved, into my work, I became so much more productive. I became so much more happy. I became so much more healthy. I'm glad you did ask this question!
And it has relayed into my work still: we have a sexual orientation and gender identity project that we just had funded this last October . We're launching this June  a national mixed methods study in building out sexual orientation and gender identity data in post-secondary institutions across the US. Right now, this data is not really captured and used by most institutions because it's a really complex issue and it's very difficult for them to understand how to do it. [We're] working with several researchers: Jon Freeman at Columbia, Jay Garvey at University of Vermont, and his team at QTPiE (Queer and Trans People in Education), which is an incredible research center, and Mario Suarez at Utah State. We're doing this really incredible project to address this in American higher education, so even that experience still translates into the work that we do at AAAS.
AB: I'm also very glad that I got the opportunity to ask the question. I appreciate your time, and thank you for doing the work that you do.
TY: Oh, thank you so much for having me on. This has been an incredible conversation, and thank you for all the work you do highlighting so many incredible, incredible people and the work across so many incredible endeavors through your podcast. I love it. Please keep making it, because I love it!
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