As an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in computer information systems, Sharlane Cleare discovered first-hand the unique challenges faced by underrepresented students of color studying in STEM fields at predominantly white institutions. 

“I faced many instances of isolation, stereotyping, as well as the undermining of my intellectual abilities while pursuing my undergraduate STEM degree – all of which made me want to quit,” Cleare said. “There was very little messaging that encouraged my persistence during that time.”

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Sharlane Cleare
Sharlane Cleare

But the Bahamas native did persist, time and again. Cleare earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Computer Information Systems from Georgia State University. She also attained two master’s degrees – a Master of Business Administration from Clark Atlanta University, and a Master of Science in Technology Leadership and Innovation from Purdue University. Cleare concluded her formal studies by earning a PhD in Technology from Purdue University. 

This fall, Dr. Cleare – a former elementary school teacher turned technology scholar – joins the Cornell Information Science faculty as a lecturer leading INFO 1300, “Programming for the Web,” and INFO 5900, the MPS Project course for master’s students. Her personal experiences as a Black woman navigating intersecting lines of both race and gender within STEM fields have inspired and informed both her career vision and primary research question: Why – at about 6 percent, according to U.S. statistics – do Black women make up only a sliver of the total number of U.S. citizens to earn STEM doctoral degrees? 

Her master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation drilled down on this question by exploring the lived challenges of Black women studying in STEM fields at predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Cleare discovered students’ experiences mirrored her own. Specifically, imposter syndrome – a negative thought pattern wherein one doubts their abilities and fears they will be exposed as a fraud – was common among most Black female students, even among honors students who academically excelled in high school and college.

“Imposter syndrome is more intense for Black women when interacting with their white peers,” she said. “This psychological phenomenon looms over their experiences and poses a great threat to their STEM persistence.” 

Women who participated in Cleare’s dissertation research identified some key areas to increase their sense of belonging on their college campuses, including having more Black women as faculty mentors and hiring more diverse faculty. Nationally, STEM degree programs in colleges and universities are trying to hire more diverse faculty members, Cleare noted, but hiring is a more “macro level” attempt at diversity and inclusion. The key to a more inclusive learning environment, she said, comes at the micro level, by focusing on the day-to-day lived experiences and the unique needs of underrepresented students of color. 

“We need to examine the micro level – the interactions Black women scholars have that give rise to experiences that impede persistence,” she said.

Cornell University’s emphasis on diversity and inclusion was something that excited Cleare about joining the Information Science faculty. 

“Upon visiting the CIS department, I felt like I would be joining an authentic and welcoming environment," she said. "There seems to be a genuine drive toward expanding and cultivating diverse thoughts and ideas, and this is very important to me.”

Her teaching goal is simple: to make a difference. 

“My goal is to make a positive difference in the classroom,” she said. “I don’t want to offer students just another class experience. I want them to feel academically enriched, philosophically challenged, but most importantly, evolve into agents of positive change.” 

Louis DiPietro is the communications coordinator for Information Science.