Turning adversity into excellence

John Brito is the President of the Memphis chapter of National Society of Black Engineers. In this article he shares his experience and adversity in the pursuit of engineering – and how that inspired him to give aspiring black engineers the tools to success.
“Why do you want to be an engineer? I think you should go into an easier major, I don’t think you are prepared for engineering.” This is what my college orientation leader said the first day of my freshman year.

I am an African-American from an inner city that graduated from a failing school, and it was evident what the world thought of my potential.  I did not know any engineers then, so I could not ask anyone what to expect from classes or what type of job I could have once I graduated. I walked onto a college campus with neither direction nor mentors. Sadly, this may also be the case for many students in Memphis who have not been exposed to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). They will end up taking a leap of faith if they pursue a major in these fields.

Fortunately, within my first couple of months on campus I stumbled upon a group of engineers who looked like me and were part of an organization called The National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). They were the support system I needed. With them, I did not feel like an outcast. They ensured me that the adversity I faced growing up had actually been grooming me to be a problem solver—and a great engineer.

I now serve as the President of the NSBE Memphis Professionals Chapter.

A recent study conducted by Skills USA and the Educational Research Center of America, the Manufacturing Institute titled, “Attracting the Next Generation Workforce,” highlighted why we need to expose students to STEM and help them establish connections with engineers. The study asked students what influenced their future career pathway, and a whopping 64% said their own interests and experience was the deciding factor. It was not what their parents or teachers insisted they study. The goal of the NSBE Memphis Professionals is to make sure that more students in our communities are exposed to STEM fields through hands-on experiences. We would like to give them the ability to say, with confidence, that they know real engineers, are genuinely interested in the major, and have an idea of the job they expect to find upon graduating.

Exposing students to an array of different engineering and STEM disciplines is also important. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur could be sitting right now in a Memphis elementary school classroom. Exposure to the possibilities of several STEM fields can catalyze the blossoming of their talents.

The professionals in the NSBE Memphis Professionals Chapter understand the responsibility we have to the youth in this city, so we host a monthly STEM meeting for school-aged students. This NSBE Jr. Chapter serves Pre-K to High school students on the third Saturday of every month at the University of Memphis. At each meeting, an NSBE Professional delivers a presentation on his or her engineering discipline and the work they currently do in Memphis. Each presentation is followed by a hands-on engineering activity related to their field. Recently, the group learned about Environmental Engineering and how to build a water filter from natural and manmade materials. The students are able to interact with engineers while they are completing each activity, providing an opportunity to connect with professionals outside of a typical classroom setting.

The NSBE Mission Statement is “to increase the number of culturally responsible Black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally, and positively impact the community.” When we recite this mission statement with the other more than 10,000 NSBE National Convention attendees in Boston this spring, we will have 15 NSBE Jr. Students from Memphis reciting it with us. Attending the National Convention will help the students develop professional networking and leadership skills. It will also allow the students to see that they are not alone in their pursuit of a career in a STEM field.

In addition to our NSBE Jr. meetings, our chapter has also partnered with REACH Memphis to provide mentoring to local high school students. This is the organizations’ second year of collaboration and NSBE Memphis Professional members have developed mentoring relationships with over 35 students who have identified engineering as their career path of choice. The chapter also recently hosted A Walk for Education, where volunteers walked door-to-door in the Orange Mound community, distributing backpacks with college and scholarship information and discussing with students and parents the different opportunities a STEM career can present.

No matter how or to what extent the NSBE Professionals have interacted with them, these students’ first day on campus will be very different from mine. They will already know their major is not easy, but will be unwavering in the fact that they have the passion and the support system needed to be successful.

John Brito is an Embark graduate driving Memphis forward. Learn more at newmemphis.org.
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