Engineering Greater Diversity
A multicultural community, the College of Engineering takes great pride in fostering diversity and inclusion, and making historically underrepresented students feel at home in and outside of its classrooms and labs.
When Courtney Johnson, E’17, decided in eighth grade that he wanted to be a chemical engineer, his mother and other family members were concerned. “I come from a family of nurses, so they always imagined me being a doctor because I was good at math and science,” recalls Johnson. “That’s the career path they were familiar with. They weren’t sure what an engineer did, and whether it was a good job that would pay well.” Johnson relied on his math teacher to talk to his family, explain what the job of an engineer involved, and convince them that it was a wise career choice.
"Everyone here knows me, and knows what I'm trying to achieve—and they help me reach my goals. I don't think I would have that experience at another school."Courtney Johnson, E'17 chemical engineering
According to Richard Harris, assistant dean and director of the Northeastern University Program in Multicultural Engineering (NUPRIME), Johnson’s story is typical among many first-generation engineering students. But it’s especially true for students from historically underrepresented groups, including African-Americans, women, and Hispanics looking to enter science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs.
“In the past, these underrepresented students and their parents might not have been made aware of career options in STEM-related fields like engineering,” Harris explains. “Those students who have chosen to pursue degrees in STEM subjects have traditionally found themselves a very small minority, and have often been challenged to find other students who look like them and share their experiences.”
Northeastern: A Pioneer in Multiculturalism
Forty years ago, Northeastern’s College of Engineering recognized this issue and created Harris’ position to help minority students acclimate to the College and leverage the many resources available to support them.
“Northeastern was way ahead of the curve by recognizing that, if you really want to encourage diversity, you need to provide formal and informal mentoring, networking opportunities, organizations, and clubs that make underrepresented students feel they’re part of a larger community,” Harris says. Today, the College of Engineering continues to further its commitment through innovative programs like the recently-funded NSF $5 million S-POWER, which helps underrepresented students transfer from colleges that lack their own STEM/engineering degree-granting focus
For students like Courtney Johnson, the College of Engineering’s investment in creating a diverse community has paid off. With a prestigious Gates Millennial Scholarship, and the highest GPA in his high school’s history, Johnson could have attended any university—and he chose Northeastern. He’s never regretted this choice, even though Boston is worlds away from his native Miami.
“Honestly, I’ve always felt at home at Northeastern,” says Johnson. “I’ve been blessed to meet wonderful friends not only in my day-to-day classes, but also in the Black Engineering Student Society, Northeastern’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.”
“Through this group,” he continues, “I made friends when I was a freshman who are still my closest friends today. We’ve gone from overwhelmed first-year students, surviving the rigors of homework and finals, to now working on the same teams to finish our Capstone projects. We’ve been like family to each other.”
While still in high school, Johnson set a personal goal of curing diabetes, which claimed his great grandmother at a young age. At Northeastern, he has been able to complete several co-ops focused on medical research, drug therapies, and disease mechanisms that will help him achieve this mission. “Everyone here knows me, and knows what I’m trying to achieve—and they help me reach my goals,” he says. “I don’t think I would have that experience at another school.”
As president of the Black Engineering Student Society for the past two years, Johnson has been a visible presence on campus, and enjoys helping underclassmen set and achieve their own goals. “As a freshman, I met upperclassmen who became my mentors—and they still keep in touch with me today,” he states. “I love creating connections with younger students. You see these freshman and they’re overwhelmed by the coursework and experiencing college for the first time. It’s a great feeling to help them navigate the campus, their course load, and all the other challenges of freshman year.”
One student who’s benefitted from Johnson’s mentoring is sophomore James Tukpah, E’20. “Everyone calls us brothers, because Courtney and I have become so close,” notes Tukpah. “He’s been an important role model and friend during my first year. Northeastern has given me so many opportunities, like the chance to work on a NASA robot, but it can be hard to juggle everything. Courtney’s helped me with that.” Adds Tukpah, “I’ve also formed a very close relationship with Dean Harris—his door is always open, whether you’re dealing with a personal or academic issue. And my professor, Taskin Padir, has really taken me under his wing at the Robotics and Intelligent Vehicles Research laboratory. Starting when I was a freshman, he’s enabled me to do cutting-edge research, which is going to help me achieve my goal of working at NASA someday.”
“I feel like Northeastern works hard to educate you about the resources and opportunities available to you—and encourages you to use those resources to succeed,” Tukpah continues. “I believe I’m part of a family here, and that people care about me. That’s so important when you’re leaving your real family behind for the first time.”
Women in Engineering: Growing Numbers
To help encourage women to enroll in and graduate from the College of Engineering, Northeastern has also created a Women in Engineering Program. Similar to the NUPRIME, this program focuses on creating a network of resources and support for female engineering students.
“It’s been gratifying to see a growing awareness of STEM opportunities among America’s middle and high school students, including young women,” says Assistant Dean Rachelle Reisberg, who directs the Women in Engineering initiative. “We still have a long way to go, but Northeastern’s efforts to attract and retain female students have paid huge dividends.” In 2016, nearly a third of the incoming freshman class was female—above the 2015 national average of 21.5 percent across all engineering schools.
“In a field typically dominated by men, it’s so important that we create a culture where women feel welcome and comfortable,” emphasizes Reisberg. “Through the Women in Engineering Program and organizations such as the Society for Women Engineers, our students receive a continuum of formal and informal support from staff, faculty, and peers to encourage them to seize opportunities and help them achieve their personal aspirations.”
Maddy Leger, E’19, believes the College of Engineering has created a culture where women can feel empowered—as well as having ample opportunities to connect with one another. “I’ve formed a close relationship with Dean Reisberg and I’ve been able to meet other female engineering students through the Society of Women Engineers,” she says.
In her three years at Northeastern, Leger has had co-ops at Amazon Robotics and Microsoft, participated in the Gordon-CenSSIS Scholars Program, and served as president of the IEEE student chapter. She was recently selected as the 2017-18 executive director of Generate, Northeastern’s product development studio, which is part of the Sherman Center for Engineering Entrepreneurship Education. In all her activities, Leger notes that she has been supported and encouraged not only by her professors and advisors, but also her fellow students.
“Most of the female students here were probably at the top of their high school classes, and we are definitely focused on achievement,” Leger adds. “But there’s really no sense of competition among us. We support each other and, in turn, we’re supported by the diverse faculty here. I feel that everyone at Northeastern wants me to succeed and is invested in my success. That’s a great feeling.”
"Through the Women in Engineering Program and organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers, our students receive a continuum of formal and informal support...to encourage them to seize opportunities and help them achieve their personal aspirations."Rachelle Reisberg, assistant dean of Enrollment Management and Retention
Encouraging the Next Generation
What’s especially impressive about Northeastern’s multicultural students is their commitment to fostering a new generation of engineering diversity.
“One of my greatest female mentors at Northeastern is the director of the Center for STEM Education, Claire Duggan, whose mission is to reach out to potential engineers at a very young age,” Leger states. “I’ve been working with her to actively lead STEM-related activities for K-12 students who lack exposure to science, technology, engineering, and math in their own curricula. A lot of the students we work with are underrepresented minorities, and it’s so rewarding to get STEM in front of them, so they can see it as a potential career path.”
In addition to mentoring students on the Northeastern campus, Courtney Johnson also focuses time and energy on reaching out to even younger students. He visits his high school as often as possible to talk about his own path to Northeastern, as well as available scholarships and job opportunities. “It’s important that these kids see someone who looks like them and went to the same high school, who is excelling in a STEM field,” says Johnson. “By raising awareness of engineering as a career choice, we can increase the diversity of this field and grow the community of minority students and, eventually, engineering professionals.”
“Our efforts are designed to help foster interest in STEM in the early years, provide opportunities to enable them to pursue an engineering education, and then put the programs and support systems in place so they have maximum opportunity to be successful while at Northeastern and beyond,” concludes Harris.
S-POWER Grant Creates New STEM Pathways
As part of a national imperative to increase workforce diversity in STEM fields and the energy sector, Northeastern was awarded a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish the Student Pathways Opening World Energy Resources, or S-POWER, program.
A five-year innovative scholarship and mentoring program, S-POWER seeks to increase the number of underrepresented minority college transfer students from two- and four-year institutions that don’t offer degrees in STEM to institutions that do grant degrees in STEM. It also seeks to address the need for fundamental research and training in energy-related fields in order to prepare a new generation of energy experts.
Northeastern is partnering with two historically black colleges and universities—Clark Atlanta University and Hampton University—as well as Mass Bay, Middlesex, and Northern Essex community colleges in Massachusetts. Undergraduates from these institutions will transfer into Northeastern’s College of Engineering, beginning with the first cohort of about 25 students in fall 2017. They will receive mentoring, guidance on mapping out their curricula, peer support, and access to Northeastern’s rich resources for underrepresented students.
The program will provide scholarships for up to 160 undergraduate and graduate students; participating students will each be eligible for up to $30,000 in direct financial aid. Northeastern will also build a collaborative education, administrative, and mentoring ecosystem that uniquely supports students throughout the transfer process, including helping partner colleges and universities implement S-POWER back at their institutions.
The program will focus on building social and mentoring ties with students in a number of ways, such as through a summer program at Northeastern where students will acclimate to the university while participating in research projects. A robust mentoring and advising network will be established as well. Students will have faculty mentors at both Northeastern and their original schools, mentors in the energy industry, and peer support from Northeastern’s student organizations such as the Northeastern chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. They will also be connected with multicultural university resources such as the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute and the Latino/a Student Cultural Center.
Richard Harris, assistant dean and director of the Northeastern University Program in Multicultural Engineering, explains, “We want to develop something that is not only programmatic, but also based in educational research. The idea is to leverage S-POWER as an educational research tool. We want to identify the key success factors, then replicate this program nationally and institutionalize it at Northeastern in a way that builds on the work we’re doing today.”