Jeanette Nicole Hill had always loved math and science. By the time she was a senior at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford, Virginia, she was set on being a chemical engineer. The only question was where she’d go to college. Hill applied to Purdue University, the University of Kentucky, and Miami University and was accepted by all three. But Purdue had the edge almost from the beginning.
“My chemistry teacher had graduated from Purdue, and she made me enjoy chemistry,” Hill says. “She and I had a good relationship, and she was a good mentor. I thought it might be a good place to go because it’s considered a really good engineering school.”
As she was weighing her options, Hill and her parents visited Purdue’s campus, where she met students and faculty and learned about the programs and facilities. Hill also got her first introduction to the Minority Engineering Program (MEP), the College of Engineering’s initiative to recruit and retain historically underrepresented students of color, at a Preview program for students who have been accepted to the university. She saw MEP as the “cherry on top.”
“After attending that Preview program, I decided then and there I was going to go to Purdue,” says Hill, who is now in her senior year at the university. “Just knowing that there were other students there like me and that there’s a place where I can go and feel comfortable and be my authentic self. And especially the resources. I surely wouldn’t be doing as well in my classes without those resources.”
Purdue seems to have figured out the formula for getting Black students into engineering programs and the right combination of academic and emotional support to keep them there, but that wasn’t always the case. MEP was one of the first higher education programs created to help students from marginalized racial and ethnic groups succeed in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
During the 1960s, 80% of Purdue’s Black undergraduate engineering students dropped out after their first year. That dismal statistic led two undergrads, Edward Barnett and Fred Cooper, to start the Black Society of Engineers (BSE) in 1971. The society was advised by Arthur J. Bond, the College of Engineering’s only Black faculty member at the time, and its goal was to improve the recruitment and retention of Black students. The BSE engineering students met daily to complete their homework and prepare for exams.
In 1974, Purdue launched MEP, and the BSE changed its name to the Society of Black Engineers. Encouraged by their success at Purdue, the following year, six Black engineering students expanded their local group to form the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), a student-led organization that currently consists of more than 600 chapters and 21,000 active members. Between 1971 and 1978, the number of students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups that enrolled in engineering at Purdue grew from 28 to 304.
MEP was the first university program created to address the dramatic underrepresentation of Black, Latino, and American Indian students in STEM, but many others have followed. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; the Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park; and Eagle STEM Scholars Program at Winthrop University are among the most notable. They all provide a variety of resources to ensure students like Hill not only are drawn into STEM programs but also graduate and go on to successful careers in science.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in STEM fields is projected to grow twice as fast as overall employment in the next decade, just as progress in diversifying the STEM workforce appears to be stalling. An April report from the Pew Research Center shows that Black students earned 7% of STEM bachelor’s degrees in 2018. The most recent figures from the US National Science Foundation show that the percentage of undergraduate engineering degrees awarded to Black graduates declined from 5% to 4% from 2001 to 2016.
That’s a problem not just for underrepresented students, says MEP director Virginia Booth Womack, but for society as a whole. “The decision makers and innovators should consist of a diverse group,” Womack says. “In order to reflect the needs of the entire society, you need people who can innovate in that space and represent the needs of their culture, their community, and the world.” Diagnostic health algorithms that result in medical misdiagnoses in Black people, and facial recognition software that routinely misidentifies people of color are prime examples of what can happen when STEM fields lack diversity.
The academic community’s inability to retain students from underrepresented groups is an underlying cause of the lack of diversity in the STEM workforce. Research at the University of Texas at Austin supports that claim.
A 2019 study published in the Educational Researcher journal found retention to be a big part of the shortage problem (DOI: 10.3102/0013189X19831006). White, Latino, and Black students in the US declare STEM majors at about the same rate—19, 20, and 18%, respectively. While 58% of the White students go on to earn a STEM degree, only 43% of Latino students and 34% of Black students do, a drop-off the researchers attribute to more Black and Latino students switching majors or leaving college.
More than 2,700 students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups have earned engineering degrees at Purdue since MEP began. Womack, a Purdue alum with degrees in industrial engineering and psychology, has been MEP director since 2004, when the first-year retention rate was 63%. Today, it’s around 90%, and the 6-year graduation rate for underrepresented racial groups is higher than that of the entire cohort, 70.3% versus 68.8%.
So what’s the secret to Purdue’s successes? In 2019, NSBE executive director Karl Reid laid out four steps that engineering programs could take to recruit and retain more Black students: provide more STEM opportunities for young students, improve financial aid programs and policies, provide ongoing support, and create an inclusive culture. Purdue is doing all of them.
Womack was a founding member of the NSBE, the organization’s first female national chair, and the interim executive director before Reid’s tenure. She has always been a passionate advocate for getting more students of color in engineering. As MEP director, she has made early student engagement in STEM a priority. When she learned that only 19% of Black students and 26% of Hispanic students are proficient in math by the end of fourth grade, she created Algebra by 7th Grade (Ab7G), a curriculum designed to push students a year ahead of their grade level.
Students in sixth through eighth grades can spend a full week on campus learning about college and careers in engineering in the Summer Engineering Workshops.
Shawn Washington is a rising junior. Precollege programs drew him to Purdue well before he matriculated there. “Engineering was something I’d always thought of but never really looked into,” Washington says. “My mom actually found the MEP program where 9th and 10th graders come in and experience it firsthand. I also participated in Preview, where I got to see what it’s like as a Black engineering student.”
Once he committed to Purdue, Washington enrolled in the Engineering Academic Boot Camp, a first-semester engineering experience condensed into a 5-week simulation. To prepare for the rigors of the program at a predominantly White institution, the roughly two dozen incoming first-year students live, study, and attend classes together with as few distractions as possible.
“I shut the phones down, which freaks the kids out,” Womack says. “They are already some of the smartest kids in the nation, but I need them to know, now they’re competing with the world. They’ve never done that before.”
Despite her initial reluctance, Christina Core, who graduated last month, says her boot camp experience was transformative. “I was not too excited about having 5 weeks of my summer taken away, but I am so thankful that I went for it,” she says. “I found my home and my community. The first friends I made through that boot camp are the friends I still have.”
Academic Boot Camp is one way Purdue addresses the opportunity gap for MEP students who come from high schools that didn’t offer advanced STEM classes. For example, an analysis from the Urban Institute shows that one in five Black students attends high schools that don’t offer calculus. That lack of access leaves some incoming students illprepared for the rigors of the engineering program.
MEP also provides free pre-exam tutoring and review sessions, in which upperclass MEP students serve as both tutors and role models for students in lower classes. It was designed this way intentionally. Womack believes it’s important for the students to see that someone who looks like them has succeeded.
“When I went to Purdue, I got so beat down mentally doing this, but there was something about the people that I saw that made me know if they can make it, I can. I know they probably cried too,” Womack says.
Beyond academics, many students of color say they often struggle with feelings of isolation and marginalization that only increase as their numbers decrease. Core is often one of the few Black students in class and sometimes feels dismissed or automatically deemed less capable by her classmates.
“It takes a lot of extra effort to make a stand for yourself and to put your ideas out there,” Core says. She has experienced group work in which other students ignored her ideas but later accepted the same ideas when offered by White students. A previously rejected idea suddenly “becomes a great idea.”
When Adam Williams was choosing a college, two things topped his priority list. “I wanted to go into a top-tier program—I don’t really have a preference—and I just didn’t want to graduate with a lot of debt.” Williams received the Emerging Leaders Scholarship, which significantly reduced his tuition, and snagged paid summer internships at Kimberly-Clark and Chevron.
But at Purdue, Williams often felt that he didn’t belong. “Every day I’d walk into a classroom where nobody looked like me, shared my cultural experiences, or understood why Black Lives Matter,” he says.
According to the university’s most recent enrollment data, there were 9,803 undergraduate engineering students at Purdue; only 175 were Black. In fall 2016, a year before Williams graduated, there were 8,412 students enrolled in the College of Engineering, and 163 were Black. The rarity of Black engineering students is why Williams believes teachers, staff, visitors, and other students often assumed he was either a delinquent or an athlete. He says people on campus have a survival-of-the-fittest mentality in which the favorable phenotype is the White male.
A recent study published in the International Journal of STEM Education from researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that a negative overall racial climate on a college campus—as determined by experiences of racial microaggressions—contributes to the lack of representation of students of color in STEM (Int. J. STEM Educ. 2020, DOI: 10.1186/s40594-020-00241-4). Feelings of isolation or exclusion because of race make students of color less likely to continue in STEM.
Williams, now an engineer at Emerson Automation Solutions but soon to move to Amazon, attributes his survival and subsequent success to the support he received and connections he made.
From the beginning, MEP insisted on a place where its students could gather, study, and strategize on how to make it through another rigorous day of engineering life. Students initially met in the Black House (now the Black Cultural Center). Today, they have the Academic Success Center, prominently located in room 1261 of the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering, the main building of the College of Engineering. When discussing why this is significant, students often use words like community, belonging, and home.
“It’s like a home base for engineering students of color,” Williams says. “I would go there regularly to catch up with friends, collaborate on assignments, or sometimes just sit down for 20 min between classes.” Williams also tutored from his sophomore year until he graduated in December 2017.
“I go because I know I’m going to feel supported,” Washington says. “We can all relate to being a minority student on a White campus. That really ties us together and creates that family-like atmosphere. Going there is a safe space.”
Melba Newsome is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.