I am many things: a mechanical engineering undergraduate at Wayne State University; the president of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated – Beta Mu chapter; Vice President of the College of Engineering Student-Faculty Board; and board member and National Publications Chairperson for the National Society of Black Engineers. I have a vibrant life and a promising future pursuing my passion for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). However, as with many people of color, this hasn’t always been the case.
I grew up with an adoration of math – I was one of those kids who truly found it fun to solve problems and learn numerical concepts. One of my most memorable childhood moments was receiving a Calculus textbook from my father at age four. I “studied” that book and its alien symbols well into elementary school. To this day I don’t think I’ve ever had a more prized possession.
I had wonderful math teachers who fostered my growth and encouraged me to participate in advanced offerings. But when it came to pursuing a career and creating a long-term outlook, something was missing. I was exposed to everything but the vast opportunities open to someone with a passion for STEM subjects.
Whenever posing a career-related question I heard: “You’re really good at math. You should be a math teacher.” There are few professions more admirable than teaching, but I knew from an early age that traditional teaching wasn’t for me. While I enjoy mentoring and tutoring, and even worked as a teachers’ aid throughout high school, I don’t belong at the head of a classroom. Unfortunately, no other STEM careers were ever brought to my attention. This lack of exposure limited what I believed I could do.
In college I decided to pursue another passion of mine: music. I spent three years as a vocal performance major with a minor in mathematics. I had no idea what I would actually do with my degree, and eventually I began to dread vocal practice and grew resentful. But the true problem was that I was unfulfilled: I missed problem solving.
A few of my sorority sisters asked me why I wasn’t studying engineering. I had no answer and realized that I knew very little about what being an engineer even meant. They encouraged me to join the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and within months I had met an amazing community of engineers who looked like me – some still in college, others out in the professional world.
Eventually I made a monumental choice: I would switch to an engineering major and delay my graduation by at least three years. In essence, I was starting college over. And I can’t lie: this was daunting. But as my classes got more challenging, my outlook got better, and after my first “new” semester I was certain I had made the right choice. Now I can’t imagine how I was ever doing anything else.
Like me, many of the students I met in NSBE lacked early exposure to engineering. Others actually knew they wanted to pursue this career path, but their high schools didn’t have the capacity to foster the skills needed to transition successfully in college.
Not only did NSBE show me what it meant to be an engineer, it also introduced me to others similarly passionate about making STEM opportunities more prevalent in communities of color – particularly among African Americans.
My goal is to help ensure that all youth in my community know that while STEM careers might not be for everyone, they are a possibility for ANYONE with the interest and passion to pursue them.
In 2013 I had the singular opportunity to serve as site director for NSBE’s first-ever all-girls camp in the Summer Engineering Experience for Kids. African American women being particularly rare in Engineering, this camp was truly a gem, taking over 300 third through fifth grade girls in Jackson, Mississippi and teaching them to set goals, build knowledge, design, build and test, and present. Seeing girls that either thought engineering was for males, or had no idea at all of what an engineer was, walk away from camp saying that they wanted to be an engineer and had female engineering mentors was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
As an NSBE board member and African American woman, I feel it is my personal responsibility to stand up for and promote change. We have to actively engage in the decision making process in order to ensure that all students, regardless of race or gender or social class, know what STEM careers are, know that they are within reach, and know that there is someone who is willing to help and guide them along the way.