Humbled to have been selected to participate in the National Society of Black Engineers’ #BlackSTEMLikeMe campaign for Black History Month. Some excerpts…
Why did you choose STEM as a career?
Growing up in rural North Carolina, I spent a majority of my youth watching my family work in farming and even worked in the fields myself at as young as six years old. While my mom eventually became a registered nurse, forever taking us away from that background, I never forgot the cost of not valuing education – the fields were always there waiting for you with backbreaking labor. Introduced to technology by my uncle, I begged my mom for a personal computer and got my first TSR-80 Christmas for my 8th birthday. Rural public schools did little to foster my technology learning, but luckily I was blessed with principals and parents who took an active interest in making sure I was able to fulfill my potential. This eventually led to me attending two summer programs, Summer Ventures in Science & Math and Governor’s School (Math concentration), which exposed me to computers not merely as a boredom cure, but also as a future profession. In 1994 I entered college at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but still did not realize what the path to a career in STEM would look like, however I always took the lead role in any service projects requiring computer-related resources (such as fliers, etc.) within my fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. At the end of my senior year, because there was a lack of potential employees with computer skills in the Raleigh-Durham area, I was able to interview for an entry-level position with a company creating software for the Environmental Protection Agency in 1998. As an early parent, and because of my upbringing I treated this opportunity with the seriousness of being my last chance to avoid the fields, excelling in my role. After only a few months into the role, I was discovered by one of the Technology Directors of the company during a site visit and was recruited to relocate to the DC Metro area, being an active professional in the industry ever since.
What has your experience been as a Black in STEM?
It has been an interesting experience as a Black in STEM. Initially, I was extremely motivated to prove my worth since I did not come from a formal computer science background and did not want to be seen as less than competent. There is a saying in the Black community that you have to work twice as hard for half the recognition as others in the professional world, and I definitely carried that with me for quite a while. There is even a term for it these days – imposter syndrome. It can be a positive, as it makes one incredibly motivated to do whatever it takes to prove people wrong. It can also work against you, as your work/life balance tends to get out of order fairly quickly and easily. As I have gotten older, I have gotten a little better with it, but have definitely been party to some environments where I have had to deal with lingering stereotypes – for example – one of my managers felt it was appropriate to tell me that I “work really hard for a Black guy.” I have never felt more angry, hurt, and humiliated in my life, both for myself and on behalf of the other Blacks I have met doing their best to carry the burden of an entire race with every assignment and everyday interaction. I feel this type of interaction is not uncommon for many of the Black professionals in STEM.