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By Jocelyn Jackson

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

As a child, I rarely had a good answer for the adults who asked me that. To be honest, like many young people, I never really liked the question much, although I could never tell them why. One thing’s for sure: I never, ever answered, “I want to be an engineer.” But today, now, I can proudly state that I am an engineer, with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Iowa State University and a clear view of the Ph.D. in engineering education research I’m pursuing at the University of Michigan. During all of my years of education, I have also gathered enough life experience to know — as Michelle Obama discussed so eloquently in her wonderful book “Becoming” — that the more important question wasn’t what I wanted to be but, rather, who I wanted to become.

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I discovered my interest in engineering late, almost by chance, when my mother pushed me to take some advanced classes to finish out my last year of high school. One of them happened to be an engineering design course. I signed up for it without any real plan or desire: I’d never been all that interested in math or science, even though I was strong in math.

Looking back, it is no surprise that engineering was not on my radar as a potential area of interest or viable career for me. Of the more than 1.7 million professionals working in engineering occupations in the United States, only about 16,000 are black women, which amounts to less than 1 percent of the engineering workforce. Black women are similarly absent from undergraduate engineering programs. In 2017, African-American women were only 1 percent of this nation’s graduates of engineering bachelor’s degree programs. African-American male engineering students, although much more numerous than African-American women, are still greatly underrepresented in the discipline.

With statistics like these, it can be especially challenging for black children and youth to have the “who” relate to them in an engineering career or in the many other professions where we are rare. For example, if we don’t know any black doctors, lawyers, professors or engineers in our communities, or if we don’t see them in the media, it is that much harder to imagine the possibility of what we might become by following our natural interests.

As an undergraduate, I was often the only black woman in my engineering courses. As a result, I questioned whether I belonged, and I often felt I was being judged on the basis of my race and gender, even though I was doing good work and the course material interested me — most of the time. The feeling of being alone, of not belonging and, at times, being unwelcome, was nearly my undoing. And it didn’t help that I was subjected to racial slurs twice while I was walking across campus and around town.

Finding community among the other black engineers at my school, relatively few though we were, was what helped me to persist and, ultimately, thrive. We formed a family away from home and helped each other overcome our shared challenges. We enrolled in the same classes to avoid the problem of being “the only one.” We studied together and committed to supporting each other academically and personally. This second family was my National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) chapter, and the NSBE family will be with me in my doctoral program and throughout my professional career.

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It is difficult to overstate the value and importance of this kind of community. It is vital, in large part because engineering programs and the engineering professions are not as committed to diversity, equity and inclusion as they need to be. Organic, student-driven efforts toward these ends are powerful, but they are mitigated by a lack of structural support and focused, well-resourced initiatives to increase the number of black engineering students and professionals. Without such efforts, inequity and exclusion will persist, and too many young people who are black, or from other underrepresented minority groups, will continue to see the engineering field as it looks today: as primarily a place for white men.

I envision a world where students and professionals will be well represented in these engineering spaces and where the most challenging part of their experience is their coursework and job responsibilities — rather than their self-identification as minorities. I believe that I can be a part of this change and work every day to “pay it forward” and inspire/encourage those who need it most.

Jocelyn Jackson is a doctoral student in engineering education research at the University of Michigan and national chair of the National Society of Black Engineers.