About 170 faculty members, U-M students and high school students attended a Martin Luther King Jr. Day virtual panel discussion on Tuesday featuring eight Black University alumnae who are all experts in the field of aerospace engineering. 

The University’s aerospace engineering department hosted the event along with the Aerospace Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee, Black Students in Aerospace and Women in Aeronautics and Astronautics. Two student moderators asked each of the panelists questions as they discussed their unique experiences as Black female engineers. The women also spoke about the future and ways that communities and workplaces can start to diversify their programs. 

Engineering junior Erika Jones, a student moderator, said she was excited to hear about the panelists’ experiences, especially because she is majoring in aerospace engineering. 

“It’s important to see the progress we’ve made over time with how many Black women enter this field,” Erika Jones said. “High school students are also going to be watching so they can be inspired by the Black women (alumnae) that majored in aerospace engineering.”

Erika Jones also commented on her own experiences in engineering classes, noting the effects that a lack of minority representation can have. 

“Just being the only one, we (Black female students) feel like we need to prove ourselves,” Erika Jones said. “It just feels like there is more pressure on us to excel.” 

All eight panelists shared experiences and difficulties they faced while growing up. A common problem the women shared was a lack of Black female engineers to look up to as well as doubts from others and themselves. 

Jessica Jones, the aero/performance lead at Aurora Flight Sciences, received her doctorate in aerospace engineering in 2017. She spoke as a panelist about her own experiences pursuing an aerospace education. 

Jessica Jones said she had big dreams throughout her education of pursuing science but did not have any relatable role models. 

“I first realized that I was the only one all the way back in high school,” Jessica Jones said. “I knew I was going to be rare, but I thought it would get better when I got to college, I thought I would find my people and that is not what happened. When I got to college, I became one in a sea.”

Jessica Jones also said she felt she was not being noticed for her accomplishments but rather for her race. 

“It felt like my own accomplishments were secondary to just my mere presence in a room,” Jessica Jones said. “On the other side of things, my failure would be stumbling blocks to anyone who came behind me. So the pitfalls of that (being the only one) were really intense as time passed.” 

Jasmine LeFlore is currently the advanced design project engineer at Collins Aerospace and received her undergraduate degree from the University in 2015. As a panelist, LeFore said she faced a lot of resistance from people who told her she could not become an engineer. 

“I had counselors and advisers giving me the ‘you should do this instead’ talk,” Leflore said. “I was honest with myself about how hard I was willing to work and figure out how I was going to reach my goal. I was driven by doubt.”

Lizalyn Smith — the self-published author of the book “Goddess Vibes,” aerospace engineer for the NASA Glenn Research Denter and member of the University’s undergraduate Class of 2002 — explained that the experiences many people have as children shape their perceived opportunities later in life. She said these experiences are especially relevant for Black women in science, technology, engineering and math. 

“The future starts with the youth,” Smith said. “As a child I didn’t even know what engineering was. So expanding that scope for children at an early age and allowing them to experience what engineering is and the opportunities it presents you (is important).”

Smith said the best way to achieve more diversity within STEM fields is through exposure at an early age as well as support systems and advocacy at each step of the way. 

A common deterrent the panelists encountered was the lack of mentorship in aerospace engineering. Sydney Hamilton, structures stress manager at Boeing and member of the University’s undergraduate class of 2013, described how important allyship is throughout the engineering journey. 

“There is a great need for both mentors and sponsors,” Hamilton said. “A mentor is someone you can get advice from and help develop yourself. A sponsor is someone who is advocating for you when you’re not in the room. Someone who, when the opportunity arises, will speak up for you.” 

Jessica Jones also emphasized the great impact mentors can have. She explained how many people advocated for her over the course of her career, helping her get where she is today. This inspired her to join a group at Aurora Flight Sciences to seek out young women and help guide them through the engineering field.  

“We target women of color so they know the focus is on them,” Jessica Jones said. “There is no diversity flowing into your company if there is no pipeline. So we’re telling women of color we want you, you are the diverse group of applicants we are looking for.” 

Each panelist also offered words of encouragement to young engineers in the audience. Tia Sutton, vice president at the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association and member of the University’s undergraduate Class of 2000, contributed a final piece of advice that helped her throughout her career.

“We can be our own worst enemies,” Sutton said. “She’s been her own roadblock, questions if she’s good enough, smart enough or if she was chosen because she’s a Black woman. Be and stay flexible. Don’t let your thoughts of what a perfect career could get in the way.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Madeleine Bauer can be reached at madbauer@umich.edu.   

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