Published 11 February 2021 by Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao

Flourishing as a Minority in Higher Education

Photo/Credits: janiecbros/iStock

This piece summarizes an article written by Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao and recently published in Matter on how to navigate the way as an underrepresented minority in higher education.

Some two decades have passed since I attended primary school in my village in China, but I can still recall the moments of walking down a muddy road for around half an hour four times a day, crossing a railway line that separated home and school. If school finished late, I had to run in the dark and sometimes hold a burning straw torch since there are no street lights in my hometown until today. Born as a first-gen student in a small village, I was raised by my grandmother since I was five years old after my parents´ divorce. Inspired by my grandmother’s faith in education, I went on to earn two bachelor degrees, two master degrees in China, Canada, and the US. Today I am a Ph.D. candidate in Mechanical Engineering at Cornell University.

Being Mentee and Mentor

For me, the most significant barrier is the lack of guidance from my family. Neither my grandparents nor my parents went to college, so I haven’t had a lot of guidance from them about what to pursue. Another barrier is the lack of role models who have similar backgrounds and are willing to share their experiences. Access to information is key to making a rational decision. To achieve this, I find it very useful to identify peer role models who are a few years senior to myself, preferably from underrepresented groups. I have been amazed by these peer mentors’ kindness who agreed to look at my essays, suggest potential fellowship opportunities to me and more. I have also been trying to give back and support them. This way I forged a sustainable relationship with my mentors.

As a first-generation student I understood that my journey was never alone and it’s essential to be part of a support group or network with peers and mentors of similar background. During my study at Cornell, I was fortunate to join a department with a supportive and inclusive environment for minorities: One of my committee members is first-gen and my department DGS (Director of Graduate Studies) is a Latino. They have shown generous support for me through their mentoring and I have also been a mentor other students in the community. In addition to mentoring first-gen undergraduate researchers in the lab I also believe it’s vital that I tell my stories so that other students with similar backgrounds understand the shared challenges we are facing.

Speaker, Conference, Studying
Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao in the library at Cornell University and as a speaker during a conference. Photos: private

Economic and Social Burden

Being a first-gen student does not necessarily mean that the family has a disadvantaged economic status. But for me, I have also faced a tremendous economic and social burden throughout my pursuit of education. I never went out of my city to travel until I was admitted to a university in another province. Money was not the only concern and deciding to pursue graduate school also means the opportunity costs of spending five years in the twenties. These opportunity costs are even higher for minorities since we tend to have fewer opportunities in life. Throughout my past study I have struggled, but I navigated my way through all the barriers as a first-gen student who grew up in rural China to successfully pursue my Ph.D. study at an ivy league school and receive several accolades for my work. I also hope other underrepresented minorities can understand how many opportunities are out there and how the world can be much larger than their imaginations. Don’t let your economic and social burden stop your pursuit of higher education!

Running a Muddy Road at Night With a Burning Straw

Looking back, my education experience as a minority is like running on a muddy road at night. Having a great role model, making plans ahead and joining a supportive community are like the burning straw torches that lit up my pursuit of education — these are also the tips I would like to pass on to the broader population of underrepresented minorities.

Read more: Interview with Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao about a project he invented during the coronavirus pandemic.

Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao

Dr. Xiangkun (Elvis) Cao ( is a Schmidt Science Fellow at MIT, researching the intersection of engineering, business, and human dimensions for carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and conversion. As the co-founder of Arbon for direct air capture of CO2, he won the Activate Fellowship, the MIT Climate & Energy Prize, and contracts from the Carbontech Development Initiative and Frontier Climate. He belongs to the group of young scientists who have been invited to the Lindau Meetings 2021 (interdisciplinary) and 2022 (Chemistry).