When McCormick senior Macs Vinson came to Northwestern, he didn’t think that using software like @Risk or Simio on University computers could be such an isolating experience.
In order to do his homework, Vinson would trek from his South Campus residence to a computer lab in Tech outfitted with the computer programs. Every time he made the trip, he immediately noticed that he was almost always the only Black person in the room. He rarely asked any of the other students there for help – he didn’t want to seem like someone who needed it.
“Every time I struggle as a student, I go to this automatic place of thinking maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe the reason I’m here is because of affirmative action,” he says.
For Vinson, an industrial engineering major and ASG executive vice president, negative thoughts automatically spring to mind when reflecting on his time at Northwestern. He ticks off the difficulties he has had to overcome in McCormick, from a lack of representation in the classroom to few resources for students of color.
Vinson doesn’t mince words when summarizing his experience as a Black STEM student.
“Unhappiness,” he says. “Desolation.”
In November 2015, Northwestern appointed students to the Black Student Experience Task Force, assembled to better understand and improve Black undergraduates’ experiences at Northwestern. The report, published in September 2016, illustrates the feelings of discontent, struggle and isolation that Black students experience throughout their time at Northwestern. The report makes plain that Black students’ experiences of campus life diverges from other groups on campus, despite the narrative of inclusion often put forth by the University.
The report came on the heels of student activists storming a donor event in the Henry Crown Sports Pavilion last November to protest the University’s plans to move administrative offices into the Black House, a historically important building for Northwestern’s Black community. In front of a stunned, silent crowd, the activists demanded that the administration listen to the needs of students of color.
Black Lives Matter NU, a group involved in organizing the protests, released an initial list of 19 demands shortly after the protest, which grew over the next few months. Three of these demands specifically addressed the experiences of STEM students of color. One called for upgrading the computers in spaces like the Black House with the software Vinson and other students need to complete their work. Another urged an upgrade to the shared meeting space for the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and Society of Women in Engineering (SWE) – professional societies that work toward creating a community of support for minority engineering students. A third demanded a minority STEM Office in McCormick to support and assist STEM students of color.
The requests are simple, but the report shows why they matter. Satisfaction rates for Black seniors have dropped 21 percentage points from 41 percent in 2010 to 12 percent in 2016, while satisfaction increased for white, Latino and Asian students. When focus groups asked students to list three adjectives that they believe best describe Northwestern, some of the most frequently used words included “competitive,” “stressful,” “segregated,” “hostile” and “exclusive.”
In general, STEM students of color (Black and non-Black) say they feel disproportionately less prepared, lack the resources for the help they need and ultimately feel unrepresented in McCormick classrooms.
To be fair, McCormick isn’t easy for anyone. Vinson points to a “weed-out culture” thanks to the difficult engineering curriculum that affects the well-being of students. With the average freshman taking a load of “essentially” five classes – chemistry and chemistry lab, Engineering Analysis, math, and Design, Thinking, and Communication – it’s easy to feel that if you can’t handle the load, you’re not fit for the program. When talking about her freshman year, NSBE’s NU chapter president Bobbie Burgess says the intensity of the program and the initial sequence doesn’t leave room for first-year students to develop a passion for engineering.
“I wouldn’t say they’re trying to leave you high and dry,” she says. “You just have to learn how not to be left high and dry.”
For students of color, however, other pressures pile on top of this already heavy load. Magan Omar (McCormick ‘16), who studied computer engineering, remembers how demanding his classes were and how difficult it was to focus on his studies as news headlines about police shootings proliferated, making it hard for him to focus on anything. But like Vinson, he worried that if he didn’t perform at a high level in his classes, he would play into the stereotype of being a token for diversity.
“When I asked a question in front of my EA1 [Engineering Analysis] class or if I answered the question wrong, I didn’t want to be the dumb Black kid,” Omar says. “That perception and that mindset made me [not want to] ask questions at all, to always appear that I’m smart and I deserve to be here.”
McCormick also tends to assume that the majority of its students have had access to lab activities in high school, says Raul de la Rosa, president of NU’s SHPE chapter. This assumption can leave behind students who don’t have much lab experience, or who are entering a lab for the first time.
“You go through very difficult classes and when you’re coming in from high school, especially if you’re coming in from a high school where they didn’t really offer a whole lot of AP [Advanced Placement] programs and IB [International Baccalaureate] stuff, it can be a really quick change,” de la Rosa says.
This discrepancy in experiential knowledge also has the potential to intimidate or deter students from pursuing a particular field of STEM.
“It’s designed where unless you had higher education or a background in what you’re studying, it’s extremely hard to kind of pick it up from scratch,” Vinson says. “So like for students who’ve never done coding before, imagine the burden it is to be a computer science major.”
Whether it’s feeling unprepared, underrepresented or overlooked, there is no one universal experience for students of color in McCormick; but, across the board, the same sentiments are echoed.
“I don’t think anyone’s outright said anything demeaning to me about being a female or being a Latina, but it’s something unspoken you feel,” says Jennifer Delgado, a junior studying mechanical engineering. “You notice it because you feel your experience doesn’t really match anyone else’s.”
Bigger and Better Resources
One item on BLMNU’s list of demands, the relocation of NSBE, SHPE, and SWE’s shared office space, seemed oddly minor and specific when compared to calls for preserving the Black House or upping the Black student population. But the cramped office in the basement of the Ford Design Center was due for an upgrade, organization members say. At times, the room meant for three large student organizations was mostly used for storage, only able to fit about a six-person study session among leftover meeting snacks and boxes of extra T-shirts.
“We’ve all voiced our concerns that the space in the basement of Ford just wasn’t really working for us,” says Michelle Wang, president of NU’S SWE chapter. “It wasn’t doing what it needed to do. It wasn’t a community space.”
The administration listened. The space was moved during Winter Quarter 2016 to a much larger office on the fifth floor of Tech. Now, it has both a meeting area and a separate study room. Doodles and complex equations cover the whiteboards lining the classroom. There’s a bookshelf full of textbooks and a clear view of the Bahá’í House of Worship. The snacks and T-shirts have been relegated to a small curtained storage space outside of the office.
This relocation came about after conversations among NSBE members, McCormick seniors involved with BLMNU and several administrators within McCormick. These included Dean Julio Ottino and Ellen Worsdall, the assistant dean for student affairs and adviser to SHPE, NSBE and SWE. Worsdall said she was impressed with her fellow administrators and how quickly they moved to establish this new space.
“Really positive things can come out of protest and I think it’s unfortunate that it had to get to that level,” she says. “But as it got to that level, it allowed people to have more honest and frank conversations, and I think that’s awesome.”
Systems of Support
Burgess almost switched out of McCormick during her first year. She was struggling in her math class, and with an already heavy course load, she felt she didn’t have the necessary time to devote to it. When students have difficulty understanding or keeping up with the work in a class, it can be enough to dishearten students from pursuing engineering, she says.
But then Burgess found NSBE. With a smile on her face, she says that it was because of her involvement in NSBE and how much she valued it that she decided to stick it out in McCormick and continue on her path to becoming an engineer.
“I think for me it was super encouraging to see others get through the curriculum and succeed because it was motivation for me to do the same,” Burgess says.
As a first-year McCormick student, being overwhelmed is far from uncommon. For de la Rosa, having an organization like SHPE to turn to for help was crucial for him to get through his first year. “If you’re struggling in a class, that could be all it takes for you to think, ‘Okay I’m not cut out for engineering’ or ‘I’m not cut out for STEM, let me switch, let me drop out’,” de la Rosa says.
Organizations like NSBE, SHPE and SWE look to build community within their respective student populations in McCormick. Students have voiced a need for these spaces where they are surrounded by others like them, especially since there are few students who look like them or share the same experiences as them. This desire to see themselves represented extends beyond the student body, however. After the protest, conversations about diversifying the faculty of McCormick were reignited, as one demand called for an overall increase in faculty members of color at Northwestern.
Worsdall explains that while there may be a lack of diversity among faculty, the true problem lies in that few students of color go through graduate school with the intention of becoming professors. She says that throughout her 15 years of experience, she’s only known of two former NSBE students who have gone on to become faculty members.
“You can’t force people to pursue it, but I think we can encourage students to think about it,” she says.
This is where these pre-professional organizations can come in. NSBE, SHPE, and SWE work to close the gap for students of color in higher education by connecting undergraduates with job opportunities.
SWE’s undergraduate career fair, which is the largest technical career fair on campus, was created to extend professional opportunities to women in engineering. NSBE and SHPE have junior chapters at high schools like Evanston Township High School, and these three organizations intend to reach high school students of color and motivate them to take an interest in STEM fields. Worsdall says this outreach can help to diversify McCormick and STEM fields as a whole, especially when high school students see people who look like them pursuing STEM fields.
“We can change the statistic, because you could look at the statistics and just feel like ‘why bother?’” says Worsdall. “We want students to believe in themselves because you can make effective change, and we all have a responsibility to help foster a community that allows students to achieve whatever their goal is.”
Bio&ChemEXCEL, a program specifically targeted at incoming STEM students of color, is a five-week program the summer before freshman year aimed at “promoting diversity and inclusion” within McCormick. Omar, who participated in EXCEL before entering Northwestern, attributes his success during the program to working in a comfortable space and being surrounded by people with similar backgrounds.
In order for students of color to succeed, Vinson says McCormick needs to make sure first-year students know about what resources are available to them to ensure they persist and graduate with the major they entered with.
In addition to communicating resources, the creation of a minority STEM office within McCormick, as demanded by BLMNU, would provide spaces of support at the administrative level for students of color. Burgess says that when she’s attended NSBE conferences, she would hear other students talking about their schools’ minority STEM offices and wondered why McCormick didn’t have an office specifically serving the needs of students of color.
Despite the progress McCormick has made, de la Rosa says the school still has a long way to go. And in order to truly ensure its student experience is a successful, engaging and inclusive one, Vinson says McCormick must hold on its commitments to not just achieving equality, but ensuring that every student in STEM fields has equal opportunity and equal access to resources.
“Equality doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone has an equal chance to succeed in the situation,” he says. “Rectifying that by listening to students and understanding what their needs are is the best way to solve it.”