University of Rochester

Black Engineering Students with A Dream Reach Out to Their Younger Colleagues

November 2, 1995

Young Black engineering students from around the Northeast are coming to Rochester for some fellowship and career advice -- but they're making time to help nurture their younger colleagues who share the same dreams of a career in engineering.

Among the more than 600 students expected to attend the Northeast regional meeting of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) in Rochester this weekend are dozens of high school students, including about 40 from Rochester, who will participate in workshops and a design competition. The teen-age students belong to high school chapters that NSBE college students have organized at schools such as East High School and Edison Tech. Throughout the year University of Rochester NSBE students help tutor the younger students and serve as role models, as well as encouraging the younger students to pursue their engineering goals.

"These college students, some of whom are struggling in their dream to become engineers, are themselves reaching out to support even younger students," says faculty member Ben Ebenhack, chapter adviser. "Instead of pushing people out of the life boat, they're pulling more people in. This is a group of young people determined to find ways to succeed," says Ebenhack, a petroleum engineer who teaches at the University's Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies.

The NSBE meeting is being organized by students from the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology. The event at the downtown Holiday Inn kicks off Friday evening with a mixer and continues Saturday with a series of workshops on issues such as honing study skills, controlling one's credit, and starting one's own business, as well as presentations by local NSBE alumni who have become successful engineers. The conference also helps match area companies and colleges with prospective employees and students.

"You learn a lot of networking and interviewing skills, and you meet people who are striving for the same things you're striving for," says Joane Belizaire, president of the University NSBE chapter, who helped plan the conference. A native of Brooklyn, Belizaire is a computer science major who has enjoyed programming computers since the fourth grade. She plans to work for a couple of years before going to graduate school to study artificial intelligence.

Ebenhack cites several problems that African-Americans face in the quest to become engineers. Obstacles often include lack of role models, poor preparation in high schools lacking resources such as equipment and even books, and cultural bias.

"You have young people with the capacity and interest to become professionals, but if they have no professional role models in their lives, they have no firm notion of what engineers and scientists do," says Ebenhack. "Add to that a lack of resources, and on top of that a teacher who steers the student away from engineering because he or she thinks the material is too difficult for a minority student, and a fair number of students are turned away from engineering." Though the problem is well recognized, a paucity of African-American engineers persists.

NSBE is a group started and run by students. The group helps its members attain academic success as well as develop interviewing and job-seeking skills. Besides reaching out to high school students, much of the group's focus during the year is on academics and study sessions, says Belizaire. tr