As a Black student in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses, Jessica Lewis ’19 quickly noticed that she stood out from her peers on the pre-med track.
“I remember my freshman and sophomore year pre-med classes when I would look around the room and not see anyone that looked like me,” says the psychology major and Swarthmore Summer Scholar (S3P) from Baltimore, Md.
“The majority of my [STEM] classes here have been white or non-Black," echoes fellow S3Per Kendre Thomas ’20, a computer science major from Houston, Tex. "It kind of takes a toll, and this is not unique to me.”
These experiences help explain why both students serve on the executive board of Swarthmore’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), an organization that aims to increase the number of Black engineers and provide them with support and opportunities for professional and personal growth. Thomas is the chapter's president while Lewis, who was also motivated by her desire to increase representation of Black women in STEM, is a senator and chartering vice president.
The chapter existed previously on campus, but had gone dormant until two years ago when Quentin Millette ’20, an engineering major from Ann Arbor, Mich., committed himself to reviving it.
Millette, the current social chair of the chapter, grew interested in NSBE as an incoming freshman, but learned that the group was inactive on campus. With the support of the Engineering Department and then-chair Professor Carr Everbach, he was able to attend NSBE’s national conference in Kansas City in spring 2017. Millette found the four-day gathering, which was attended by over 10,000 people, both affirming and inspiring.
“You see that there is a community supporting you,” he says. “There are these people that have done it before you. Just having that representation and visibility is really key to the growth of not only NSBE, but for people of color in STEM in general.”
Using connections he made at the convention, Millette increased his efforts to restart Swarthmore’s chapter and recruited the help of Lewis, Thomas, and Julius Miller ’19, an engineering major and recent Fulbright winner from Fountain Hills, Ariz., to spread the word around campus. By the time the next convention came around, the fledgling organization, now chartered by the College, had raised enough money to send nine members.
Beyond professional opportunities, the value of NSBE lies in the community it has cultivated for its members. The Swarthmore chapter has hosted study breaks where upperclassmen help their underclass counterparts with introductory STEM courses and created a buddy system in which students are paired based on similar interests and then develop connection on academic and personal levels.
“My dad always said that I would have to work two or three times harder than average because I’m a person of color," says Miller, the chapter's vice president. “It’s reassuring to know that I'm not the only person that has to go through this. I've seen my friends and peers working together in the pursuit of our goals and it's a reassurance that everything’s actually going to be okay.”
Now that the chapter is off and running, members of the executive board are taking steps to make sure that it will continue to flourish into the near future and beyond.
“Coming into this year, one of our overarching goals was to really get freshmen involved,” says Richmond Mensah ’21, an economics and computer science major and S3Per from Yeadon, Pa., and chapter treasurer. “If you can get them into NSBE earlier, then it's part of a process for all four years here. They're in NSBE and contributing and sharing their experiences.”
Agrees Millette: “My hope for NSBE is that it continues to blaze a trail for people to follow and make it not only easier, but provide lots of opportunities for them as well.”
Swarthmore is investing in its vibrant intellectual culture. Learn how at lifechanging.swarthmore.edu.