A Pledge of Support

artwork illustration of diverse people

A range of philanthropic efforts are helping to increase engineering diversity at Northeastern―and in the global workforce.

This article originally appeared in Engineering @ Northeastern magazine, Spring 2021.

While 2020 was a challenging year, it did result in some positive impacts. Among these was an increased awareness of systemic racial inequalities in the U.S., which led many businesses and private individuals to commit to supporting social change.

“In asking ‘What can we do to help correct this situation?’, I think many people began to recognize that access to educational opportunities plays a critical role,” says Richard Harris, assistant dean and director of the Northeastern University Program in Multicultural Engineering (NUPRIME) and special advisor for Educational Pathway Programs in the Office of the Provost.

While Northeastern’s College of Engineering is ahead of national averages in terms of minority representation and retention―and the NUPRIME effort to recruit and mentor minority students dates back to 1974―the college recognizes that there is much to be done.

A range of committed donors are partnering with Northeastern to diversify not only today’s engineering student body, but eventually the global engineering workforce as these students graduate.

Called to action

Among those watching the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and wondering “What can we do?” were executives and associates at DN Tanks, a company in Wakefield, Massachusetts which specializes in the design and construction of concrete water storage tanks. The company, which has provided co-op opportunities for Northeastern engineering students for over 45 years, quickly convened employee focus groups.

“We recognize we can’t singlehandedly change the world, but we wanted to do something that would make a positive impact,” explains Charlie Crowley, former CEO and current Chair of DN Tanks. “We wanted the effort to be driven by employees, so we asked them to brainstorm ideas for increasing diversity in our company and the civil engineering workforce in general.”

Given the company’s long relationship with Northeastern’s College of Engineering, the employees’ response included creating an endowment at Northeastern. Less than a year later, the DN Tanks Fund for Educational Equity in Civil & Environmental Engineering is supporting ongoing scholarships for minority students at Northeastern.

Ed Holmes, E’87, is DN Tanks’ director of technical training and manages the co-op program in the Wakefield office. He notes that the company’s goal was to begin making a difference immediately. “Since an endowment takes time to generate dividends, we plan on supplementing the initial donation with additional funds so we can get the scholarship up and running immediately,” remarks Holmes. The DN Tanks Fund provides tuition support for a second-year or above civil and environmental engineering student.

Environmental Partners (EP), a multidisciplinary engineering and consulting firm in Quincy, Massachusetts, has promoted diversity in its workforce since its inception in 1997. While women represent approximately 50% of EP’s engineering workforce, far higher than the national average of 13%, the firm has been challenged to hire minority engineers. According to Ryan Trahan, E’02, chief operating officer at EP, this has been a long-term issue for the entire architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) community.

“The AEC industry has historically struggled with diversity and inclusion. While I believe there is more work to be done, we’ve actually seen great progress in gender inclusivity over the last 20 years, as more women pursue STEM careers. What’s particularly alarming is how underrepresented minorities are in our fields,” says Trahan. “As a company, we asked, ‘How can we encourage diversity and create greater opportunities?’”

Today EP is funding an annual scholarship for a student in their second year or higher at Northeastern pursuing a career in civil, environmental, or transportation engineering. Awardees must identify as historically underrepresented in engineering, specifically Black/African-American, Latinx/Hispanic- American, and Native/American Indian.

“We wanted to give back specifically to Northeastern students, as they’ve added so much value to EP as coop students and employees,” states Trahan. “In fact, Northeastern graduates make up about one-third of our engineering staff. While we acknowledge that this is one small piece of a very complex puzzle, we’re fortunate that we have the means to do something, and we’re excited to help create a more diverse pipeline of students and graduates of the Northeastern College of Engineering.”

Jean Inoa, E’21, received the first Environmental Partners Scholarship. “As a first-generation student from a low-income family of immigrants, I can’t stress enough the gratitude I have,” says Inoa. “By receiving this scholarship, I will be able to fully dedicate myself to being a student, rather than working to sustain myself.”

It takes a village

Other support made possible through gifts for historically underrepresented students in the College of Engineering include, but are not limited to:

  • The Black Engineering Scholarship provides need-based aid to minority engineering students chosen by the College of Engineering Dean’s Office via a nomination process.
  • The Dr. Winslow L. Sargeant Engineering Scholarship provides support to one or more African- American students majoring in engineering who are involved in entrepreneurial activities.
  • The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) grants annual scholarships to 25 Northeastern engineering students from historically underrepresented populations.
  • The Society for Hispanic Professionals and Engineers offers scholarship opportunities to members of the Northeastern chapter.
  • The National Society of Black Engineers offers scholarship opportunities to members of the Northeastern chapter.

Harris notes that individual donors can also make an enormous impact in fostering inclusion. “The Faith Leahy Scholarship was created in the 1970s by a forward-looking woman who recognized the racial disparity in engineering before many others,” Harris says. “We’ve recently removed some geographic limitations on this fund, and it will be open to many more underrepresented students in the 2021-22 academic year.”

Harris points out that Dr. Winslow Sargeant, E’86, has acted as both a hands-on mentor to Northeastern’s minority students and a powerful fundraising force. Not only has he established his own scholarship fund, he helped endow the Black Engineering Scholarship, and has encouraged other alumni to support the College of Engineering’s efforts to diversify.

Latonya Beverly, E’19, received financial support from both the Dr. Winslow Sargeant and Black Engineering Scholarship Funds. She recognizes the value of “paying it forward.”

“Dean Harris once said to me, ‘It is not about me, but those who came before and those who will come after.’ This statement has really made an impact on my perspective on life and I have really adopted this outlook for myself,” notes Beverly. “It means a lot to know that there is a village looking out for me, reaching back as I climb.”

DN Tanks’ Crowley emphasizes that students are not the only beneficiaries from the ongoing efforts to diversify the global engineering workforce. “Engineers solve problems,” he says, “and the more diverse our perspectives―from a racial standpoint, from a gender standpoint, from a geographic standpoint―the more creative our solutions will be. We will all benefit from making the engineering workforce more diverse and more innovative. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.”


Related Faculty: Richard Harris