Jump to page content

Much accomplished, much yet to do

By Amy Raley

Much accomplished, much yet to do

Author: Amy Raley
Magazine Section: Always
College or School: CoE
Article Type: Issue Feature
Feature Intro: In 1968, George Hawkins, Purdue vice president for academic affairs, requested that Arthur J. Bond, a beginning graduate student in electrical engineering, join the staff to recruit and retain black engineering students. Seven years later the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) was founded at Purdue.
In the late 1960s, four out of five black freshmen in Purdue’s engineering school were dropping out. Two undergraduate black students stepped up to stop the trend. The late Edward Barnette (IDE ’72) and Fred Cooper (BSEE ’74) approached engineering dean John Hancock with the idea of starting the Black Society of Engineers (BSE). The dean agreed and assigned Purdue’s one black engineering faculty member, Arthur Bond, to be the group’s advisor. In 1971, the BSE was born, and Barnette was its first president.

Cooper, who attended Purdue on a full football scholarship, served as BSE president for two years (1972-74) and was co-captain of the football team his senior year. After successfully meeting the challenges of his obligations to Purdue’s rigorous engineering curriculum and its Big Ten football program, he was picked by the Detroit Lions in the sixth round of the NFL draft. He remembers the satisfaction that came from managing his hard work in class and on the team, but also from helping his fellow engineering students.

BSE in 1975

“There were about 15 of us who started the society,” Cooper says. “Our No. 1 objective was to make sure everyone who enrolled in the engineering program graduated. It wasn’t ’if’ you were having problems in class, it was ’which ones.’ People were often afraid to ask for help, so we set up study sessions in the evenings for students to get help and study together.”

After Barnette and Cooper graduated, new chapter officers of the Black Society of Engineers included six young men recruited from Chicago. Edward Coleman, Brian Harris, Tony Harris, Stanley Kirtley (deceased), John Logan Jr. (deceased), and George Smith would later become known as the “Chicago Six” and the founders of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

With the student initiative supported at all levels of the Purdue administration, Purdue’s black engineering students were succeeding and graduating in increasing numbers. It was a turning point for Purdue’s underrepresented minority engineering students that continues to impact students today.

Tony Harris (BSME ’75), now president and CEO of the Campbell/Harris Security Equipment Co., Alameda, California, was among students who helped found NSBE, and is currently chair of its national advisory board. He remembers well his time at Purdue in the early ’70s.

“There were very few black students; we had 25 blacks in my class, and there were only two African-American women,” Harris says. “Most were on assistance and below the poverty line. There were even fewer black engineering grad students — only one in the PhD program in engineering when I first got there.”

Harris says affirmative action programs were getting underway around the country at the time, as the federal government advocated for minority programs in higher education. He easily recalls the three basic questions that formed the mandate for him and his fellow Purdue black engineering students: “‘How do we keep from flunking out?’ ‘How do we get a job?’ and ‘How do we get other students to come into the pipeline?’”

Today, according to Virginia Booth-Womack, director of the Purdue Minority Engineering Program (MEP), there are 770 underrepresented minority engineering undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at Purdue, approximately 270 of which are African-Americans. The number of students has increased since 1974, but she says there is still work to do. MEP casts a wider net than what was cast in the ’70s by reaching out to all underrepresented minorities, which are defined as African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans.

Beyond student recruitment and retention services that are available to all students, MEP employs extensive outreach programs to encourage middle school and high school students to enroll at Purdue, and to prepare them for the academic rigors of Purdue’s engineering curriculum.

“We have touched more than 8,200 sixth- to 12th-grade underrepresented minorities through our Summer Engineering Workshops at Purdue,” Womack says.

During the summer before students’ first semester, MEP offers its Engineering Academic Boot Camp program. The five-week, first-semester simulation familiarizes students with the Purdue climate, and the academic rigors and pace of First-Year Engineering. Students are introduced to campus and student life, and overcome the cultural shock that often is part of being underrepresented on campus.

Womack acknowledges that despite the expanded programs and giant strides that Purdue’s MEP and NSBE have made with successful outreach and academic success programs in 40 years, affordability remains a challenge.

“Over the past four decades, we have seen a shift in student access and success as tuition has changed drastically from the rates of the 1970s,” she says. “College affordability has impacted the number of students that choose to come to Purdue. We are seeing lower yield numbers for underrepresented minorities, especially those who accept better offers elsewhere. We are hopeful that Purdue’s increased focus on affordability through scholarship offerings, internships and focused giving will make a difference.”

MEP supports student academic success before and after enrollment. Students who also join NSBE, derive even greater benefits.

“All voting NSBE members are students,” Harris says. “With their NSBE involvement, they’re effectively living through an MBA curriculum because they establish priorities and determine budgets. They get a lot of leadership experience that is evident in a job interview.”

Harris outlines four critical benefits that NSBE offers its student members: “The leadership development component is No. 1; the ability to motivate students to pursue STEM is No. 2; networking with high-earning professionals is 3; and the social networking among engineers is 4. Let’s face it,” he adds, “female engineers find male engineers; they get along, and get married!”

Looking to the future, Harris says NSBE needs to navigate escalating workplace competition. Maintaining its mission to connect technical people with shared cultural interests will be key, he says.

On the same question of what NSBE should look like in decades to come, Cooper, now a commercial real estate consultant after a long career with the Bell System in Chicago, advocates a greater focus on entrepreneurship.

“For example — how to develop a product and apply for a patent,” Cooper says. “Fostering the entrepreneurial spirit. One part of NSBE could break off to be more of a consulting organization. NSBE would provide research and development for business consulting services to companies that already support NSBE. It would be a way to grow NSBE and give students more internship opportunities.”

As the students of NSBE mark this 40th anniversary milestone at Purdue and view a future that is full of possibility and promise, those involved with NSBE and MEP are acquiring the vision and commitment needed for meaningful positive action for another 40 years.