Access and opportunity for minorities

Marion Williamson Blalock, retired director of Purdue University’s Minority Engineering Program, guided thousands of students, from middle schoolers in Summer Engineering Workshops to those who earned doctorate degrees in engineering.

Everyone needs mentors. For Marion Williamson Blalock, one who modeled aspiration was her Aunt Sallie Gearring, now in her nineties. For thousands of students over the last 30 years, their mentor was Blalock.

Getting to college was an achievement in itself for Blalock. Growing up in the shadows of an East Chicago steel mill, she faced losses young: an infant brother, both parents when she was 11, her grandmother four years later.

Seeking opportunity, she watched others. “Whatever the richer kids did, I did,” she says. “If they ran for student office, I ran. When they applied for college, I applied”—against her high school counselor’s assertion that Blalock wasn’t college material.

“My Aunt Sallie pushed all her kids to go to college. I modeled a lot after her,” Blalock says. Landing at Purdue in 1965, she earned a degree in sociology in 1969, then a master’s in counseling and personnel services.

In 1975, she joined the Office of Purdue’s Dean of Students, moving the same year to the Minority Engineering Program (MEP), thanks to Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funding. Blalock taught freshman engineering orientation, and she took opportunity to minorities around the state, inviting youngsters to Purdue’s Summer Engineering Workshop.

“The students met other students who looked like them and were aspiring,” Blalock says. “And they met role models who looked like them and were doing well. It was great exposure to college life.”

Eventually, the workshops expanded to one-week sessions for 6th and 7th graders, another for 8th graders, and a separate program for 9th and 10th graders. Since 1975, more than 2,000 Purdue engineering degrees have been awarded to African American, Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and Native American students, and Minority Engineering has become a model for others.

Blalock, now retired, is a “living legend” in the words of Virginia Gleghorn, who succeeded her as director of MEP. “Her tireless commitment to recruitment, retention, and academic success of engineering students has resulted in countless success stories of prominent corporate and community leaders who benefited from their childhood Summer Engineering Workshop experiences,” Gleghorn says.

While Blalock blazed new trails, she declines singular credit. The groundwork was laid before her, and she was helped by many, including volunteers.

“This was a team effort,” she says, “and there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team.’”