Dr. Carl Mack, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers, told a crowd of about 150 students gathered in the Chesebrough Auditorium last night that he wasn’t there to give a feel-good speech. No, he was there to discuss the necessity of retaining minority students in engineering programs.
According to Engineering senior Sean Preston, president of the University’s chapter of NSBE, the event, called “From Surviving to Thriving: A College-wide Forum for Examining Student Achievement and Success,” was organized to examine the issue of retention among minority groups in the College of Engineering.
The event was sponsored by the University’s Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach, which formally launched last weekend. The center aims to bring more collaboration between the Multicultural Engineering Programs Office, the Women in Science and Engineering Program and the Office of Engineering Outreach and Engagement and to develop the three “into a single, cohesive unit,” a flyer for the event states.
Preston opened the presentation by citing a statistic which shows that the retention of minorities in engineering schools is much lower than the general student body.
“It’s a very important issue, especially among minority communities, especially in the black community,” Preston said. “The turnover rate from enrolled students to matriculation is only about 60 to 70 percent.”
Preston’s introduction was followed by the recognition of Leo McAfee, associate professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in the College of Engineering. As McAfee comes into his retirement, NSBE honored him for being the first African-American professor in the department.
Mack, who was recognized by Ebony Magazine as one of the Top 150 Black Leaders in America, explained that as a community, minorities in engineering are transitioning from fighting to survive to fighting to thrive, but that there’s more progress to be made.
“I tell you transition is a good thing … I don’t know anything that can stand still and survive,” he said.
The difficulty of the subject matter covered by engineering is the cause of the low student-retention rate, Mack said.
“There are three mystical, mythical words that explain why our retention is where it’s at — chemistry, calculus and physics,” he said.
Upperclassmen need to help freshmen and younger students to encourage them to strive and to motivate each other to study, Mack said.
“The untransformed student is the one that says, ‘I can do this all by myself,’” he said. “All the kids in a year need to say, ‘We are all going into the sophomore year, leaving no one behind.’ … It’s a dedication to academic excellence.”
Mack concluded his speech by noting that completing a rigorous curriculum successfully is extremely challenging.
“Why do you think they respect engineering so much?” he said. “It demands your best. This is excellence at its best and we have to recognize this. If we take this seriously, we’ll be dropping knowledge, not classes.”
Mack’s speech was followed by a standing ovation and a question-and-answer panel with Mack and Dr. Calvin Mackie, president of the Channel Zero Group — “an organization committed to maximizing the effectiveness and potential of individuals and organizations,” according to the event flyer.
Both speakers shared their personal stories and described how growing up in inner city neighborhoods was a primary motivator in their lives. They also emphasized the importance of current engineering students remaining focused.
“It’s about hunger. That’s the part that’s missing — the desire, the hunger, the commitment,” Mack said, referring to his determination to succeed against the odds. “A lot of us are not hungry because we have never had to struggle before.”
Engineering junior Anthony Menard, a board member of the University’s chapter of NSBE, said he was moved by the event.
“There is so much that we as students take for granted,” Menard said. “We need to realize that we are all in this together, rather than making it personal. As students, we tend to think, ‘I just need to beat the curve,’ and we don’t realize that by helping each other, we all succeed.”
Menard, who is Native American, said he relates to the goals of NSBE despite the racial differences.
“It’s not about color, it’s about personal growth. I can relate to the struggle, as can all minority groups,” Menard said, citing the low retention rates in engineering among Native American students as well.
Engineering junior Amber Spears, community service chair of the University’s chapter of NSBE, said she teared up during the the speech.
“It affected me on a personal level because I want to see more of us here, not less of us, and as the years go by, there’s less of us here,” Spears said.