MEP director, first female national NSBE chair chosen for IBJ’s 2020 Women of Influence
Womack (BSIE ’91, BA Psychology ’92) is the director of Purdue’s Minority Engineering Program (MEP) and, in 1978, was the first female national chair of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). She also is a member of the founding chapter of NSBE at Purdue. Additionally, from 2015-2019, she was president and executive director of the National Association of Multicultural Engineering Program Advocates (NAMEPA).
Womack was chosen for the magazine’s award based on a glowing nomination that outlined her professional experience, leadership, vision, community service and mentorship.
“She is one of our nation’s leading advocates for increased participation of underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education,” her nominator wrote.
From industry to academia
Womack, who grew up in Indianapolis, received support as a Purdue student through the very program – MEP – that she would eventually lead. The program not only provided tutors and study sessions, but also produced her first internship in industry. She went on to complete internships at Procter & Gamble, General Dynamics and Eli Lilly and Company. In 2004, she was recruited to become director of MEP at Purdue, coming from industry sector positions at RCA and Daimler Chrysler, now known as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA).
“Part of Virginia’s success as MEP director flows from her successful engineering career in industry. She was the first African American female area manager for Chrysler’s 3.7/4.7 Mack Avenue Engine Assembly Facility in Detroit and the first African American female Lean Manufacturing manager for the 3.7 and 3.7 Mack Avenue Engine facilities,” according to her nomination letter. “Her experience in industry has not only enabled her to pursue and develop strong corporate partnerships to build the Minority Engineering Program. Virginia also incorporates lean manufacturing concepts to develop innovative metric systems to measure program effectiveness and identify continuous improvement strategies.”
Since joining Purdue, Womack has developed and implemented a diverse range of programs for students ranging in level from third grade to PhD. These initiatives increased the interest, recruitment, enrollment and graduation of underrepresented domestic students.
“Under Virginia’s leadership, the Minority Engineering Program has achieved a number of milestones: 2016 to 2018 saw consecutive historic highs in enrollment of underrepresented minority students (URM) in the College of Engineering,” her nominator wrote. “The four-year graduation rate for URMs improved 110% since 2004, and the four-year graduation rate for African American engineering students specifically improved 160% since 2004.”
By 2019, for the first time in the College’s history, the five-year graduation rate of the URM cohort was on par with the five-year graduation rate of the total engineering cohort.
“Through Virginia’s guidance, the Minority Engineering Program has played a major role in closing the achievement gap for underrepresented minority students, and it has made the College of Engineering student body more representative of its surrounding demographics,” according to her nominator.
Womack’s efforts for URM students in STEM have been recognized with a variety of prestigious distinctions. She received the Women History Maker Award at the 2018 Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity (CoNECD) Conference for her work as national president of NAMEPA. In 2014-2015, she was honored with the MEP Director of the Year Award, which is given to a director who has demonstrated national thought leadership and has developed program models widely recognized as benchmarks suitable for national replication. In 2016, the Purdue MEP staff was recognized with the 2016 Black Graduate Student Association Engagement Award, given annually to an organization or individual who has made significant contributions to campus engagement, diversity and community outreach. Womack also is a gifted leader in the classroom and received the Best Teacher of the Year Award in 2017 from one of the College’s learning communities.
During a recent pivotal period (2013-2014) in NSBE’s history, Womack accepted the organization’s request to serve as interim executive director while the group conducted a search for a new leader.
“While on loan from Purdue, Virginia successfully managed NSBE’s $12M operation with approximately 30 employees through a very difficult transition,” according to her nomination. “She oversaw and maintained organizational viability, increased corporate sponsorship, program outreach and professional development.”
As an NSBE national advisor, Womack continues to support its National Executive Board and National Headquarters in program development, assessment and execution as well as membership development.
Serving as national president and executive director of NAMEPA, she led the association through transformations that enhanced its organizational capacity and national profile. She also saved the association from near bankruptcy and elevated it to a state of financial health. Womack currently serves as president emeritus of NAMEPA.
Womack also is a founding member of CoNECD, which brings members from the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE), Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN), and the National Association of Multicultural Engineering Program Advocates (NAMEPA) together to pair research with practice in student success for STEM education.
Building a diverse pipeline for STEM fields has been an important goal throughout Womack’s academic career. Alarmed to learn that only 19% of African American and 26% of Hispanic students are proficient in math by the end of fourth grade, “Virginia took action by partnering with the Lafayette School Corporation to launch its Algebra by 7th Grade (Ab7G) program,” her nominator wrote.
Since the 2017-2018 school year, children in second through sixth grades gather every other Saturday at the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering to experience various ways of learning math with the help of the Chevron Corporation. “Like many other successful programs under her belt, Virginia plans to make this initiative a national model to positively impact student and parental success.”
Womack is a nationally recognized leader in the engineering education community. She is a highly sought-after speaker at community, academic and industry-based events that address diversity, education and workforce development.
“Through partnerships with target schools in Indiana and Chicago, Virginia is deeply involved in the on-site delivery of hands-on engineering projects to inspire and encourage students at an early age to pursue careers in engineering,” her nominator wrote. She maintains partnerships with community organizations such as the Center for Leadership Development in Indianapolis to expose young people to the world of engineering.
“Under Virginia’s leadership, the MEP has become one of the most vibrant hubs of student and alumni activity at Purdue.”
As a national adviser for NSBE, as well as through NSBE Ghana and NSBE Canada, Womack mentors students around the world as well as on the Purdue campus through academic coaching, financial support counseling, school/life balance guidance and conflict resolution. She oversees nearly $450,000 annually in scholarship support and leads a range of student-focused college affordability initiatives.
“MEP’s Academic Success Center is often filled with students, not always seeking tutoring, but rather a ‘home away from home,’” wrote her nominator. “Virginia’s office is a place where students find a sense of community, belonging and encouragement to make it through another rigorous day of engineering life.”