Black History Month: Celebrating Diversity, Leadership and Community

Black History Month

Black History Month is a national annual celebration, held throughout the month of February, to recognize critical events and important achievements by Black Americans and to honor their roles in shaping United States history. Today, addressing diversity and inclusion in higher education is more critical than ever.  We asked engineering students to share their experiences — both struggles and triumphs — and their personal journeys to find resources and networks that serve as a unifying means of finding and building a community at USD.

Taylor Brown ‘23 (ISyE)

Describe your involvement with the USD chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

What motivated me to get involved was the struggle I had adjusting to college-level courses. My first semester at USD was not the best academically and I was still conflicted about my major. My freshman spring semester, I went to the Alcala Bazaar and signed up to be a member and the rest was history. 

I was searching for a sense of belonging and support on campus. I found it once I joined NSBE. Being with people who looked like me had a positive impact on my academics   — if they could do it I could do it too. NSBE also offers academic help through our awesome community within our chapter and our regularly scheduled study jams. We really just want to support each other and see everyone succeed. 

I have held the position of senator and vice president with NSBE. My current position of vice president involves consulting with our executive board. We get regularly to discuss upcoming events, new ideas and our regional and national convention.

My involvement with NSBE has definitely prepared me well for life after USD. NSBE offers events such as resume workshops, professional career panels and career fair preparation regularly. All of these events have helped me improve my knowledge and skills that will help me land an internship or full time job after college. 

Describe how your participation in the annual NSBE conferences has influenced you personally and professionally.

I have physically been to one national conference and virtually to one regional conference. I attended the national conference as a freshman. There were 50,000 people there all for the same thing — bettering themselves through professional and personal development. It was so eye-opening, with our group traveling and scrambling together, it became a great bonding experience for our chapter and made me want to get more involved in NSBE. 

Having the opportunity to travel with my chapter, meet people from all over the country and meet recruiters from top companies was amazing. The conference allowed me to work on my elevator pitch, polish up my resume and even figure out my engineering major. I would not have known what to major in if it had not been for attending that national conference. 

How has your culture and background, as a woman of color, impacted you in your studies as an engineer? 

My culture has motivated me to work harder and to bring about more awareness amongst my peers. As a woman of color, I often find myself being the only one in my classes, and that can be a bit discouraging. It's easy to fall into imposter syndrome. I just have to remind myself that I deserve to be there just as much as anyone else and that I can be successful in this field.

Diversity is so important to the growth of the engineering profession. Too many people of color do not even consider the STEM related fields because they do not see representation of themselves. I like to use my position as an engineering student to show high school students that they can pursue a career in engineering just like I am. 

My involvement with cultural spaces and my leadership position has taught me how to lead a group responsibly and fairly, hearing all sides. A leader must factor in all points of views and opinions from everyone, regardless of their background — if only taken from those who look like you, you are setting yourself up for failure. You must be a holistic engineer.

Describe your entrepreneurship endeavors at USD.

Last semester I entered the Fowler Business Concept Challenge with a partner under our start-up idea, You Go Curl. You Go Curl is a subscription box based service that offers affordable textured hair care products to women of all ages and backgrounds. We mainly focus on affordability, personalization and education on how to care for their unique textures. We started this because we both have had struggles with feeling confident in our natural hair and understanding how to take care of it. We want to make this journey much easier and cheaper for people with hair like ours.

Coming up with the perfect pitch and slide decks can be nerve racking, but overall it has been a great experience. I improved on my public speaking, entrepreneurship skills and got to pitch to influential industry leaders. I am very proud of this and I recommend the challenge to everyone. 

What advice would you give to Black engineers who are new to USD?

My advice would be to join NSBE as soon as possible! There is no better place to find friends and a support group on campus. Joining will help make your transition process to USD so much easier and less stressful knowing that you have a community on campus that you can rely on. 

Devin Devlin ‘21 (EE, Minor in Math)

Describe your involvement with the USD chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

I came to USD as a student athlete for football. As an electrical engineering student, I was the only person of color in my class. I went to the first NSBE meeting my freshman year and learned what national membership and mission meant. I could see myself being involved heavily — I wanted to be on the executive board. 

In my sophomore year, I served as the financial chair for the USD chapter. As a junior, I held the position of vice president for the USD chapter along with the Southern California Zone chair for the regional executive board, which was the biggest role I took on.

This year, I am the president of the USD chapter. I want to set a path for our general members to make sure everyone is aligned to our NSBE goals. I want to help as many people as I can, with resumes, networking, etc., and I want to coordinate with sponsors to make sure we have the funding to attend the conferences and other NSBE aspirations. 

NSBE gave me the opportunity to be surrounded by people that look like me — a place I didn’t feel alone, a place where I belonged. You are able to make friends in an environment where people go through the same thing as you. Through my NSBE leadership roles, I have not only built my communications and preparation skills, I am now in a position to give back to my community. With NSBE's mission to graduate 10,000 by 2025 annually, I want to do as much as I can to support that goal.

Describe how your participation in the annual NSBE conferences has influenced you personally and professionally.

I attended the annual National NSBE Conference in Detroit during my sophomore year.  It was my first conference and first real career fair. Coupled with Rhonda’s guidance in Career Development, it was my opportunity for live practice. I got to talk with other career professionals, made lots of good connections, gained confidence in myself and met with employers. 

The conference was unlike anything I’d ever seen — with 15,000 Black engineers all at one place. There are not a lot of people where I am from who are engineers, engineering wasn’t really taught. Through these conferences, I found that this is 100% possible for Black kids and helped me drive other Black engineers to push for more.

At the Regional NSBE Conference in San Francisco, I was on the executive board and really focused on helping members and serving as a leader. I had to answer a lot of questions, to make sure workshops were organized and that people were registering and attending. Through it all, my goal is to give back and to share my perspective and what I have learned with the younger generation of students of color. 

How has your culture and background, as a man of color, impacted you in your studies as an engineer? 

I’m from the Bay area, where the only way to “get out” is to go to college or play some sort of ball or rap. With two motives to move up in life, I chose the academic path. One of my high school teachers said I'd make a really good engineer. I did have an interest in being connected to the STEM disciplines. I liked science and technology, but knew no one in the field. 

I came to USD not knowing anything about engineering or what it was. I took ENGR 101, and on the first day the professor discussed majors. I thought to myself, ‘All my life this is what I wanted, I just didn’t know it.’ Electrical engineering (EE) was most aligned with my interest in computers and technology. They say it’s the hardest degree program and I liked the challenge.

I am proud of being an EE. I am the only Black EE in my graduating class — it’s so crazy to me. I love learning and I know I want a better life for myself and my family. Engineering was the perfect scope and it covers my entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurship has helped me connect with others within the campus community and I am grateful for that.

Describe your entrepreneurship endeavors at USD.

How ‘Bout Now (HBN) is committed towards creating a communal digital space that values transparency, inclusivity and community. HBN is the only platform to engage neglected groups and facilitate healthy connections as a means to speak out against violence and hatred. We are invested in connecting underrepresented communities from San Diego State University, University of California, San Diego and the University of San Diego to comfortably share their experiences.

I worked with a bunch of USD students who helped start this venture and pushed it forward as a senior project. Will Trevena, Alp Oktay, Daniel Dayto, Adaly Solis, Brandon Micale, Arrion Archie and Jacquie Puga all helped drive this mission in our goal to do this. 

What advice would you give to Black engineers who are new to USD?

Look at what engineering is and look at the various professions within. Start learning about your area of interest — Google and YouTube are great resources. You can learn anything you want, and make sure problem solving is part of your exploration. It takes a lot of drive to do this on your own, but do it  and find someone to learn alongside with you. Learn about yourself and do as much as you can to get to where you want to go.  At the end of day, you have to put in the work. 

Join the NSBE organization. It is really beneficial and will help you out in many ways professionally, academically and personally. You can give back to your community and it gives you a space where you instantly feel comfortable.

For entrepreneurial activities, do anything you can outside of school and build it — it doesn’t have to be complex. Work with a team or by yourself. Being able to do that has helped me gain confidence and skills, and not just as a student. When interviewing, talk about your entrepreneurship and your NSBE journey — it sets you apart.

Lauren Washington ‘21 (ISyE)

Describe your involvement with the regional chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

Last year I served as the programs chair of the NSBE regional board, which covers 13 states and roughly 50 chapters. We worked with different conference chairs within our board to create programs that satisfied NSBE’s national vision. We also collaborated with other regional boards and with neighboring chapters to help build a supportive community. This included helping chapters to develop their fundraising campaigns, how to market their chapter to companies and how to bring those companies in and show their chapter’s value. 

The reason I am so involved with NSBE is because at one point I was at ‘the bottom’ and needed help. With my experience, I can now lead those in a similar situation to help obtain all of the benefits NSBE offers, to give them pep talks and to be there for them. I also work at Tandem Diabetes and send open spots to all NSBE group chats for our members to benefit from our connections. I believe in going above and beyond — and if I ‘make it’, I am going to bring three of you with me.

Describe how your participation in the annual NSBE Conferences has influenced you personally and professionally.

I attended this year's national convention and helped put on the prior year’s event. I really enjoyed the regional leadership conference, which is a little more intimate. The leadership board from Region 6, USD’s chapter, learned about how to be effective leaders. They taught us about personal development and how to effectively schedule our time given the challenges of holding an office position while being an engineering student. We also learned how to keep members engaged, how to network with companies and to host more social events to foster community. My biggest goal was to market the value of NSBE to the School of Engineering students. There is so much great stuff that happens just beyond the standard chapter. 

How has your culture and background, as a woman of color, impacted you in your studies as an engineer? 

I was a Poli Sci major coming into USD. Both of my parents work for the government and wanted me to be a lawyer — I wanted to be a lawyer. I took my first Poli Sci class and knew instantly it was not for me. It was in that class that the BSU president talked to me about Dr. D, who was looking for more women of color who are good in math, science and interested in social justice. I was curious. I never thought I could ‘do’ engineering.

It just clicked with Dr. D. She was talking about all the different things you can do as an engineer that overlap with social justice and how my goals could be achieved through engineering. I took her User-Centered Design course, working with autistic people and seeing how important it is to have the user in mind in our design.

This opened my eyes, as I have a brother with Down's Syndrome, and gave me a different perspective and new passion I could bring to the field. Since then, I've taken a lot of Integrated Engineering classes to use my social justice foundation as I think that's what keeps me going in engineering. There’s not a lot of people like me, I am used to being the only one of color and even fewer women of color.

The way I see it is that if I don’t do this, there isn’t going to be someone who has the same background as I have in the classroom. I want to see more people of color at USD. By giving a tight knit community through NSBE, we have increased our member number exponentially. I am not only fighting for myself, I am fighting for the kindergartener of color that doesn’t even know that she has that spot waiting for her. I want to not only reserve that spot for her, but I also want to expand it.

What advice would you give to Black engineers who are new to USD?

Join NSBE. We will take you in and hold you tight, even if you are a non-engineer or if you only have the slightest glimpse of desire for engineering. We all struggle with classes and help each other out. Even if we may not have a tight knit relationship, if you come to me with a question and I don't know the answer, I will find someone who will help answer that question and dedicate time to help you with whatever you are struggling with — I am all for helping. We all are.

Also, I am pretty shy. I didn’t know other people outside of NSBE to turn to. So I decided to step out of my comfort zone and became a member of Theta Tau to gain professional connections, make friends and study with students in my classes. I am trying to get more people of color involved, too, by marketing and collaborating with clubs of color. Although this space is a stretch for me, I am working to make them more diverse, and encourage others to do the same.

Click for more information on USD’s Black Student Organizations.

— Michelle Sztupkay