Virginia Booth Womack
Director, Minority Engineering Program, Purdue University
Greetings from the Minority Engineering Program at Purdue University and thank you for visiting this site. This program is one of many that stand, with more than 80,000 engineering alums, on the shoulders of the foundational graduates who established Purdue's beginning as an engineering school. Among the first students to earn an engineering degree since the first classes began in 1874 is David Robert Lewis. He became the first recorded African American to receive a Civil Engineering degree in 1894. David's thesis reflected a dream of constructing a highway.
I can only imagine what a highway would mean to David Robert Lewis. A road with no stop signs, free from the constraints of Jim Crow, racial hatred, segregation, and exclusion? A way to escape the penalty of being on the streets after sun-down? Or he may have envisioned a highway that would lead to a better life, a better future for the next generation, a better and different world. We do not know what Purdue looked like through David's eyes, but I believe he felt (like many of us) that a degree from Purdue University would open many doors of opportunity. A Purdue engineering degree would provide a stamp of approval that would overcome racial hatred. A degree from Purdue, in the eyes of many Black people who were not allowed to own property in David's time, was more valuable than property. It demanded respect.
The world today certainly looks different from the world David Robert Lewis experienced, but racism continues to be a force that demands our attention and problem-solving expertise. Throughout the history of racism in America, there have been advocates at the forefront of change, many of which were not Black. There were always key enablers that intentionally opened doors that had formerly been closed. These were individuals from all ethnicities, religions, and cultures that were willing to get into 'good trouble' to address injustice. Even today, cries for racial justice are going up from every race and occupation all over the world, yet the United States stands clearly divided along racial lines.
Fourteen grand challenges have been identified by the National Academy of Engineering to lead the world through the 21st century. They include but are not limited to affordable solar energy, clean water, clean air, restoration of urban infrastructures, advanced learning, securing cyberspace, better medicine, and health informatics, reverse-engineering the brain and more. Deconstructing systematic racism and its effect on the quality of human life for people of color was not one of the grand challenges, but it should be. Racial justice is a call to action for all of us, especially in our educational institutions. What will we do about it?
The stories you will hear in the videos presented here, contain the lived experiences of students, faculty, staff, and administrators within the College of Engineering. It does not provide all the stories that can be told, neither does it provide the answers. It simply opens an opportunity for us to listen to these testimonials and consider how our actions can impact the lives of those right next to us. The eyes of David Robert Lewis, others like him, and our own ancestors view the world we live in today through our eyes. Their zeal to become engineers and solve the world's most compelling problems in their lifetime, energizes our zeal today. The problem we need to solve, however, involves the heart.
In the effort to broaden participation in STEM and bring institutional transformation that focuses on student success, it is my hope that Purdue University, the birthplace of the National Society of Black Engineers, the first Women in Engineering Program, a nationally recognized leader for Minority Engineering Program best practices, and of course, the alma mater of the first man that walked on the moon, pave the way for academic access and excellence for underrepresented populations. Why shouldn't we be the school that takes giant leaps towards a more diverse, student-success focused university? Why can't we build the pathways or highways that construct a clear pathway to Purdue University and the College of Engineering for people of color? It is our hope that these, and other stories will lead to sustainable change at Purdue University and provide meaningful opportunities for us to continue to work with students to shape a better future.
I thank the College of Engineering and Dean Mark Lundstrom for this opportunity to share and I thank every participant for being vulnerable and sharing your stories with us. We realize that there will continue to be student testimonials of what it means to be Black at Purdue. We hope that there will also be stories of triumph, change, and reconciliation.