Electrical Engineering Alums Support Successful Initiatives For Underrepresented Minorities

Don and Liz Thompson give back to the longstanding Minority Engineering Program

Ask Don (BSEE ’84) and Liz (BSEE ’85) Thompson how they ended up choosing Purdue, and the answer comes back quickly and in unison: “Marion Blalock.”

The couple credits the longtime and now retired director of the Minority Engineering Program (MEP) with personally introducing them to opportunities for African-American students in the College of Engineering, encouraging them on their personal academic journeys and ultimately inspiring their ongoing financial support of the program.

“A major part of my involvement with MEP as a student was visiting Marion in her office,” Don says. “She would review how you were doing, and she’d know if things weren’t going well. It sort of felt like going in to see your mother.”

Liz remembers that feeling well. “One hundred percent of my involvement with MEP revolved around Marion,” she says. “My sophomore year was really tough, and I could hardly bring myself to visit her because I knew she would not be happy with my grades. She held you accountable, but in a way that let you know she cared. You didn’t want to let her down.”

The Thompsons did not.

“We can point to so many real-life examples of how MEP has been a catalyst for success in so many lives, particularly African-American lives.”
Liz Thompson
(BSEE ’85)

The Thompsons’ Trajectory

The pair met at a scholarship dinner their freshman year, discovered they had grown up in the same Chicago neighborhood and soon began dating. After graduation, they married and embarked on successful careers.

Don went to work for a military aircraft manufacturer, now part of Northrop Grumman, then joined McDonald’s Corp. in 1990. There, he rose through a series of leadership positions, retiring as president and CEO in 2014. He currently serves on the Purdue Board of Trustees.

Liz began her career at Ameritech before switching her focus to youth development and education, with many nonprofit roles. She was executive director for one of the nation’s only Early Head Start Montessori programs and founding executive director of City Year Chicago. City Year was the model for the national AmeriCorps program.

The Minority Engineering Program hosts high school students at a summer computer coding workshop.

Effective Philanthropy

Today, the Thompsons run the Cleveland Avenue Foundation for Education, which funds organizations dedicated to student success — including MEP. The couple’s support is not merely sentimental, though. They are impressed by the program’s results.

According to Virginia Booth Womack, the current director of MEP, first-year retention rates among minority engineering students at Purdue have risen from 63 percent in 2004 to 93 percent in 2015. She also reports a 40 percent improvement in first-semester academic performance among MEP students, as well as three consecutive record-breaking years of minority enrollment in the College of Engineering.

“Our relationship with Marion is what drove our initial support of MEP, but our ongoing involvement comes because the program works and our belief in the work that Virginia is continuing,” Liz says. “We have real data that proves its impact on students’ lives. It’s helping produce more engineers of color.”

The Thompsons’ generous gifts to MEP help support the program’s numerous workshops and boot camps.

“MEP is a major contributor to effective outreach, recruitment and retention of underrepresented students,” Womack says. “More than 3,000 engineering graduates from underrepresented communities are now proud Boilermakers, many of whom can trace their early exposure to engineering back to MEP.”

One key initiative focused on retention is the Engineering Academic Boot Camp, a five-week simulation of the first-semester engineering curriculum for incoming freshmen — an experience Don believes is critical in helping minority students transition successfully into the majority campus culture.

“While some students come from high schools with great resources and technology, others aren’t as well prepared for the college experience,” he says. “Boot camp is a normalizer. It indoctrinates students to the rigor of the curriculum and gives them a jump-start on their freshman year. We are seeing boot camp students perform as well or better than other students who come in as freshmen.”

A high school student tests a foot-based “controller”.

Engineering Starts Early

When it comes to outreach and exposure, the Thompsons are big fans of MEP’s summer engineering workshops. The couple’s daughter and son — an engineering student at Stanford and a marketing graduate from Purdue, respectively — both participated in these weeklong sessions held on Purdue’s campus for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students.

“We were reintroduced to the value of MEP through these workshops,” Liz says. “They were also very formative for our daughter in determining that engineering was her choice. Even if participants don’t end up at Purdue, these workshops are helping produce engineering students at universities across the country.”

Creating these types of opportunities for underrepresented minorities is the focus of the Thompsons’ giving, both at Purdue and beyond.

“Don and I recognize that education was key in shaping our life trajectories,” Liz says. “Our philanthropy focuses first on exposing young people to different experiences so they can see what’s possible. Our second focus is getting them to and through college. From there, we work with young professionals to help them balance career and family. It’s all about encouraging and funding development for people of color.”

Womack credits the Thompsons with helping make Purdue a top choice for minority engineering students. “Once a student is accepted into the College of Engineering, the decision to choose Purdue often depends on affordability,” she says. “Retention and matriculation of underrepresented minority students in engineering also are contingent on available funding. The support provided by the Thompsons allows MEP to meet current needs and explore improvement strategies to touch more students from underserved communities.”

For the Thompsons, it all comes back to results. “We can point to so many real-life examples of how MEP has been a catalyst for success in so many lives, particularly African-American lives,” Liz says.

That includes their own.

“Purdue opened up doors of opportunity for us,” Don says. “Those doors led to successful careers, which yielded economic opportunities, which enabled us to do what we’re doing today.”

To support Purdue’s Minority Engineering Program, contact Hilary Butler, director of development, at 765-494-6383 or habutler@prf.org.