When sitting in a room with three Black men under the age of 30, all engineers for major corporations, all proud HBCU graduates, it seems hard to believe that African-Americans account for fewer than five percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded.
Chris Lesesne, 26, attended Morehouse College before receiving a master’s in aeronautical engineering from George Washington University. Now an aerospace engineer for GE Aviation, he says, “There are the rare occasions when you question whether or not you feel included in a field/organization dominated by White males,” he said, adding that it is important colleagues see him “as an engineer first.”
Morehouse does not have an engineering program; students who want to study engineering can choose to participate in a cooperative program that allows them to complete their engineering program at a partnering engineering school. Terrence Townsend, 25, a systems engineer for Lockheed Martin, chose the second option, completing his education at North Carolina A&T University before pursuing a career as a computer engineer. He says that there is some pressure around being one of a few Blacks in his field.
“I see eight to ten Black people in the office daily,” Townsend says. “For me it just gives me a heightened sense that I represent more than myself on a daily basis. I feel that, when people look at me or evaluate my work, it is not only an evaluation of me but of Black males. … I do not want to be the reason another Black engineer does not get an opportunity in the workforce based on a manager’s bad experience with me.”
Justin Germany, 26, graduated from Tuskegee University—one of only 14 HBCUs across the nation that maintains an engineering program—and currently works as a systems engineer on the Hubble telescope mission. He says that, while he does not see many faces that look like his necessarily, he notices and appreciates diversity in the workplace, saying it “creates a very comfortable environment” that mirrors the one around which he was raised.
All three concede that engineering is not seen as “cool” among young Black males. But they do not think there is a major stigma associated with engineering in the Black community that is not associated with the engineering community overall: engineers are “lame,” “antisocial.” Still, as scholars continue to debate ways to attract more minorities to STEM fields, they agree more emphasis needs to be put on engineering as a career option for Black males.
“It’s important for our community and the rest of the world to realize that Black men have been and still are capable of being just as successful in technically complex fields as other groups,” Lesesne says. “Not to take anything away from our athletes, entertainers, and Wall Street professionals, but we should have an equally significant presence in engineering and the sciences as well.”
“Those fields play a role in everything people do on this planet, so we would be doing ourselves a great disservice by not increasing our participation,” he adds.
Townsend agrees. “America as a whole needs more students to undertake STEM majors and the Black community is no exception. … In the coming years there will be a shortage of engineers nationwide, so an effort to push Black men into the engineering field is not only beneficial for the Black community, but the nation as a whole,” he says.
Germany emphasizes the effect of studying engineering disciplines on one’s mental acuity.
“The studies expand the mind, strengthening its abilities [and helping] one see the world from a new perspective,” he says. “Engineering can certainly be an avenue for the next generation to secure a comfortable lifestyle and make a positive contribution to the world at the same time. Without access to these types of careers, our youth may fall into an extremely short and negative career. We have to eliminate that option.”
Germany says that, in addition to the support of family, friends and mentors, the achievements of those who have tread the path to engineering before him serve as a great inspiration and support base.
“More experienced African-American engineers I have worked with have proved they are very capable and are well-respected among their colleagues. … After what my colleagues have already achieved it is an honor to me just to work with them,” he says.
Townsend says having Black professional mentors has been critical to his career development. “I believe Black men share experiences on how we are viewed in the workplace and things that can be done outside the workplace to improve yourself not only professionally but in life as well,” he says.