‘There are Systemic Barriers’: Black Engineer Sets Ambitious Goal to Graduate 10,000 Black Engineers by 2025

Favour Nerrise, 22, is a Ph.D. electrical engineering student at Stanford University in Stanford, California, and she is the national chair of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

She’s set out an ambitious goal to graduate 10,000 Black engineers within the next three years. According to the National Society of Engineering Education, which tracks engineering graduation rates, the current graduation rate for Black engineers is 6,000.

Despite the daunting task ahead of her and NSBE, they’re determined to find the extra 4,000 Black engineers to reach their goal.

“There are personal barriers, interpersonal barriers, systemic barriers,” Nerrise said of some of their biggest hurdles to graduating more Black engineers.

According to a 2019 Pew Research study, Black people make up only 9 percent the science technology engineering and math career fields. This is because Black students tend to face more structural barriers at a young age when learning about math and science.

Nerrise says the lack of access to tutors and resources are only part of the problem she’s come to understand while tutoring privileged kids in California.

“When you talk to these students, a lot of them, you’re getting tutored by a graduate student and you’re in high school, elementary school, middle school. That’s just not the reality for Black folks and Black students here,” Nerrise said.

Nerrise also notes disparities down to how school curriculums are structured at the legislative level. As part of the Game Change Plan 2025, she and the NSBE started addressing inequities with lawmakers.

“We stepped in and was like, this does not make any sense, and this does not work in a Black household and if you were to tell a Black household parent your kid needs to be taking this [referring to certain math concepts at certain grade levels such as determining the perimeter and area of shapes in third grade or functions and probability in the sixth grade], they wouldn’t even know what that means so that’s been a huge issue where having folks include us [Black people] in the room when they make policies like this,” Nerrise said.

The NSBE intends to tap into its membership base which is more than 20,000 Black STEM professionals across the country to accomplish their goal by mentoring and tutoring school-age Black students to keep them interested in math and science.

Another barrier Nerrise says impacting Black students nationwide are the schools themselves. She says parent involvement is key, and she encourages Black parents to be involved in their children’s education and don’t be afraid to ask their teachers and guidance counselors hard questions such as, “If she continues at this level, what courses will she be able to take next year, or why can’t she do that.”

Just as NSBE is addressing concerns at the K-12 grade levels, Nerrise says the organization has developed partnerships for students already in college to aid with mentorships, internships and workshops, including their partnership with INROADS, a nonprofit which provides professional development aimed at retaining BLACK STEM students.

Retention has been a problem that was highlighted in a 2019 report from Educational Researcher which found that 40 percent of Black STEM students end up switching away from their STEM majors. “We have so much career prep development, but we don’t actually train each other while we’re in those roles,” Nerrise said.

Despite the monumental task of overcoming educational barriers affecting Black families disproportionately or STEM retention rates at the college level, Nerrise and NSBE are pushing ahead to graduate 10,000 Black engineers. She says they’re already planning virtual training sessions for Black parents to help accomplish this ambitious goal.

“What types of things they should be looking out for, how do you converse to school counselors, how to talk to principals, how do you talk to parent-teacher boards, how to talk to local county boards, all these trainings legislative and otherwise, we want to start providing that directly to the parents and chaperones,” Nerrise said.

Nerrise says everyone will benefit by having more Black engineers in the room because technology will be more culturally related from social media algorithms up to bioengineering software.

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