Getting to Know Lloyd Munjanja

Date

09/04/18

In this special edition of our Getting to Know series, Dr. Lloyd Munjanja shares about his educational experiences as a minority and discusses the challenges and opportunities of his new role as the Assistant Director of Graduate Diversity and Program Climate.


Name: Lloyd Munjanja

Hometown: Gokwe, Zimbabwe

Education & Research Interests:
BS in Chemistry, 2007, College of St. Scholastica, MN

Ph.D. in Chemistry, 2016, University of Rochester, NY

In undergraduate, I focused on computational and synthetic inorganic chemistry, and for my Ph.D., I studied model transition metal catalysts systems to understand the process of hydrodesulfurization, a catalytic process widely used in American oil refineries to remove sulfur from natural gas and gasoline. Removal of sulfur and creating products such as ultra-low-sulfur fuel, reduce the sulfur dioxide emissions that result from combustion of organosulfur containing fuels. Sulfur oxides account for respiratory ailments such as asthma, bronchitis and also impact agriculture through the creation of acidic rain.

Why did you choose to come to Illinois Chemistry?

I grew up in a small farming town with so many cornfields, breathing in the fresh air and watching beautiful sunsets. Urbana-Champaign felt like the perfect place to relive my childhood memories!

On the other hand, professionally, it felt right to be at the University of Illinois. When I visited the Department of Chemistry, I was struck by the graduate student consciousness to social justice issues and their keen understanding of the challenges affecting their graduate education. Also, I was impressed by the department leadership; as they are greatest allies of the students. They seemed supportive of the graduate student body. Having a department head (and former department heads), director of graduate studies, and staff that recognizes and acts upon the significance of diversity and inclusion in the chemistry department was ultimately the deciding factor for me joining the department. The attitudes of the chemistry faculty, staff and those of the graduate students reflect those of a top 10 department; they care about their research as much as they care about creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for all.

In your experience, what are the challenges faced by members of historically underrepresented groups in successfully completing their education?

Often, historically underrepresented groups are treated as a monolith. People of color and other underrepresented groups’ experiences vary, and their uniqueness as individuals is not always recognized. Although there are commonalities that we share (e.g., learning how to navigate different cultural environments, combating stereotypes), each underrepresented person and group has a different story.  Ultimately what I have learned is that it's important to acknowledge and intently address the unique challenges underrepresented people encounter as they enter Ph.D. programs.  

I will comment from my own experience as both as an immigrant as well as a black person in America. As a first generation Ph.D. in my family, I didn't have any inside information as to the rigors of graduate school. No clue. No cousin prepared me. I thought it was just like undergraduate: memorize and regurgitate the information in the exam, get an A+, congratulations to me, I am a "smart student." Graduate school was different. I was the one creating new information. Surprise. None of my folks had made it further than high school. So I was basically on my own figuring out what this Ph.D. was all about. That in itself presented the initial challenge for me.   

And as a black person (or minority) in the sciences, one has this audacious and seemingly impossible task of trying to fit into a system that was not designed intentionally with them in mind. Square peg in a round hole conundrum. I was simultaneously trying to balance being true to myself and becoming part of the "sciencey” culture." Being the only or only one of a few persons of color in the department can add to the stress of graduate education. Researchers have coined the phrase "minority stress" to describe the psychological impacts of being the only person of color in a predominantly white environment. On top of regular rigors of graduate school, minority students have the augmented constant stress of "having to prove" their capabilities/competencies. I was constantly checking and rechecking myself to make sure that I was not perceived as the incompetent one. Hello, imposter syndrome! And there are those other faculty and graduate students that greet you with, “Ohh, you are the minority student they admitted this year" Hello, micro-aggressions.           

Besides, some of the challenges minority students face has nothing to do with the graduate training itself. It has to do with understanding our context, meaning the families we come from.  In my case, being the one who had received the most educational training in my family, I was the highest earning member of my family (even though I was on a graduate stipend). Consequently, I ended up taking care of my family, subsequently impacting my financial and emotional aptitude. I remember at one point after getting my Master’s degree considering dropping out of graduate school. I felt I needed to get a “real” job and earn real money to take care of my family.  

What strategies will you use to address these challenges?

What made my overall graduate education exciting for me was the presence of strong mentors and advisors who were great listeners. They were eager to understand the unique challenges that threatened my Ph.D. success. They were also ready to hear my wildly different perspectives. My Ph.D. advisor was my first and foremost ally. The best advice I was given and one I usually pass to first-year graduate students looking for a research advisor is: "Your success in graduate school is highly dependent on your advisor and then on your research project."

A supportive community inside and outside the graduate community goes a long way in keeping one grounded during graduate school. I found that having a community of African Americans outside of my graduate school colleagues helped in keeping me grounded and focused on my vision. Interestingly, my interactions outside of my department kept me inspired to do chemistry. My social circles reminded me why I loved chemistry – to be an inspiration and an agent of positive change to my community. As my experiments failed, and I put in countless hours in the lab, faced micro- (and macro-) aggressions and felt like an imposter in chemistry, I kept on thinking that our communities need more PhDs. These PhDs will have the opportunity to sit on the "decision-making table” at which for so long people of color have not had a seat. Hello, progress! For there is no excellence without diversity. There is no innovation without diversity. Hidden Figures, the movie, showed that.  Even evolution is all about diversity. 

All of these personal challenges sum up to four strategies to address issues faced by women and underrepresented groups in chemistry:

  1. Creating robust vertical and horizontal mentoring strategies,
  2. Developing strong support networks for students inside and outside the department,
  3. Constant education of the departmental community on inclusivity, and not to be overlooked,
  4. Financial support. Where we put our money speaks louder than words.  

When dealing with a non-diverse environment or individuals with little experience with diversity, how would you approach making diversity relevant or valued?

Empathy coupled with patience is definitely one of the top skills for a career in diversity and inclusion. What I have learned is that as people we tend to be trapped in our own experiences, environments, cultures, and perspectives. What this does is reduce our exposure to multiple ways of thinking, living and experiencing.

Education using a variety of teaching techniques becomes very critical in sharing information for communities that could be considered as "non-diverse." Even better is creating opportunities for people to experience others’ cultures. One of my favorite documentaries is 30 Days Living as a Muslim in which a West Virginian Christian moves to Michigan to live for 30 days in a large Muslim community. The challenges he encounters and the empathy he develops after that experience is astounding.

Somewhat forgotten in this understanding of diversity and inclusion is the fact that we as individuals have experienced that sense of feeling unwelcome at some point in our lives. It could be that time for Thanksgiving at the in-laws or the experience one gets when you are in a non-English speaking country for the first time. Whatever that may be, I am always looking to connect diversity and inclusion concepts to an individual’s personal story. The more we understand our own journeys, the more we understand each other's experiences, and the more we recognize our shared humanity. For example, many years ago I met a gentleman from the Midwest at a restaurant, and he was quick to point out that I had an accent. I responded to him, "Yes, thank you. And you have an accent as well.” It took him a minute, and he looked at me and said, "Actually now I think of it, I never thought about it that way. It is all perspective."

What is the most critical skill for this job?  

Definitely empathy, which incorporates a lot of listening and patience. Always looking at the bigger picture and continually reminding one’s self that diversity and inclusion is not a sprint. More importantly, proactively asking questions, and putting myself in other’s shoes so that any programming I create meet the needs.

What is the biggest challenge of creating an inclusive culture?

Lack of education and exposure. What one will find out soon enough is that many people have great intentions, but the challenge comes with understanding how to emphasize with people that could be different from them. In other words, they might not be aware of how their actions or words affect others.

I believe that the more we practice empathy with one another through sharing our experiences and showing our shared humanity, we could start seeing diversity as a total collective mixture. It becomes evident that diversity is not a function of race or gender or any other us-versus-them dyad, but a complex and ever-changing blend of attributes, behaviors, and talents. "Us" versus “Them” becomes "We."


Dr. Munjanja began his new role in May of this year. He can be reached at (217) 300-4174 or munjanja@illinois.edu.

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