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Race on Campus

Engage in higher ed’s conversations about racial equity and inclusion. Delivered on Tuesdays.

From: Vimal Patel

Subject: Race on Campus: Engineering Has a Diversity Problem. Colleges Can Help.

Welcome to Race on Campus. A new report found that the proportion of engineering degrees awarded to Black graduates has been virtually unchanged for three decades, despite many calls to diversify the discipline. Our Vimal Patel spoke with a Black female leader in the field, who suggested that instructors pay close attention to how students from diverse backgrounds learn. Read about her experiences as a student and professional — and her ideas to fix the pipeline problem — below.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

Engineering has a diversity problem.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from Georgetown University that shows the difficulty of making the discipline more attractive and welcoming to underrepresented groups.

Over a nearly 30-year period, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to Black recipients annually has increased, but the proportion of engineering graduates who are Black has held steady at about 4 percent. If present trends continue, the report concluded, it would take 256 years for Black workers to achieve parity.

Representation isn’t the only problem. Like in many disciplines, pay inequities persist. On average, a white worker with a bachelor’s in engineering earns $90,000 a year, while Black workers with graduate degrees earn an average of $87,000.

The discipline is especially unequal at the intersection of race and gender. Only 3 percent of engineers working in the field in 2019 were Black or Latinx women, according to the report, from the university’s Center on Education and the Workforce. One of them is Jacquelyn R. Brooks, an environmental engineer in Tallahassee, Fla., who also serves as the chair of a diversity committee at the National Society of Professional Engineers.

Brooks spoke with The Chronicle about what colleges can do to address the lack of diversity in engineering, and her own experience in the discipline. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about your personal journey in engineering. What sparked your interest?

Mine came out of trauma. I was the oldest of three children. While my mother was working multiple jobs — she was a schoolteacher full time, but after school she had a job at Kmart — bill collectors would call me. I was just 13. They were like, If you don’t pay this bill, you’re going to be out on the streets, you’re not going to have a place to live, you’re not going to have any lights on. By the time my mom got home, one time, I was a mess. I said, “What do I have to major in to not have collectors calling my house?” I’d have to be an engineer or a doctor. That drove me from then on.

What was it like studying engineering at a majority-white institution like the University of Florida in the late 1970s and early ’80s?

I was isolated. I was put into an environment where I didn’t know anyone. People didn’t look like me. I didn’t have any Black professors. At a large school, you realize you’re just a number. I feel like I would have done better at the community college, in a smaller environment. It took me seven and a half years to finish a five-year program. Toward the end, I really struggled. It was like they forgot I was even there. They keep saying they need minorities and women in engineering, but nobody was helping me through. I felt like I was in quicksand.

What can colleges be doing to produce a more diverse engineering work force?

When I was struggling and couldn’t get my grades up, one of the professors came to me, finally, and said, “Jackie, would you be interested in being my undergraduate research student?” He had me working on a project. I worked on it every day, gave a presentation, like a dissertation, before the professors. They couldn’t believe I understood the concepts. They said, “How does she get it now and she didn’t get it then?” Because it was hands-on. I’m a visual learner, a hands-on learner. Colleges should pay more attention to how students learn. Give them a project so they can have an opportunity to see if they really have the capacity to learn the material. You’re not testing students’ true capacity if you’re not tapping into how they learn.

The report found that only 3 percent of the engineering work force is Black or Latinx women. Did that ever make you feel like you didn’t belong in engineering?

Yes. I really think much of it is unconscious. Some of my white male colleagues have been in their own little world, used to being in control. At least I’ve chosen to believe that it’s unconscious. It’s things like being in meetings and being ignored. When they would not listen to what I’m saying, I sometimes wouldn’t let them move forward because I knew what I was saying was important. That’s when it kind of opens their eyes, that she’s really trying to make a point and isn’t here just as a token.

There’s a culture in engineering — but also STEM disciplines more broadly — that says, “We’re not going to lower our standards for diversity. We’re going to hire the best person for the job.” How do you convince people who are skeptical of diversity efforts?

I hear it all the time, that we’re watering down our standards. But you don’t know the market share you’re losing by not hiring that person because you can’t think the way they think. You wouldn’t know what kind of marketing or advertising different demographics would respond to without their insight. So you’re missing out on profit because you’re being stubborn, because you have tunnel vision. When you start talking about people’s money, that makes them reconsider things.

What advice would you give students who feel like they don’t belong in the discipline?

I think they should take advantage of university counseling. I know I did many times. You shouldn’t be going through this alone. But also, beat their door down. Get the help you need. Anybody who has the ability and tenacity to do engineering deserves all the help and support they can get, whether financial, counseling, tutoring, or just somebody to cry with.

I went to Florida A&M University about a year ago to tell my story. The one thing students kept saying to me afterward was, “Everyone wants to come to us and tell us about what they do, and all the accolades they’ve achieved. Nobody wants to come and talk to us about how they’ve struggled. Thank you for telling us about how you struggled.” — Vimal Patel

Read up.

  • Last week, Wesley Morris, critic at large at The New York Times, won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism. His 2020 essay — about how growing a quarantine mustache led him to think deeply about being a Black man — was a centerpiece for his award-winning work. (The New York Times)
  • The story you’ve been waiting for. Here’s “what the hell happened with the Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure case. (The Chronicle)
  • Two years after a racist picture on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical-school yearbook page made headlines, the governor reflects on what he’s learned about race and white privilege since the scandal. (The New York Times)
  • The city-parish of Baton Rouge, La., will pay the children of Alton Sterling $4.5 million in a settlement agreement. Sterling, a Black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer in 2016. (The Advocate)
  • Maybe you’ve heard that qualified, racially diverse candidates are “hard to find” from hiring managers and leaders. Often that’s not the case, but the stereotype remains. (Stanford Social Innovation Review)

Fernanda

Vimal Patel covers student life, social mobility, and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @vimalpatel232, or write to him at vimal.patel@chronicle.com.