Program offers ‘home away from home’

Posted: October 6, 2020

After graduating from a northeast Ohio high school, Stacyann Russell was determined to attend college in North Carolina. Until, that is, former Assistant Dean Minnie McGee convinced her otherwise. McGee also was head of the Minority Engineering Program.

Stacyann Russell
Stacyann Russell

“Minnie was relentless,” Russell said with a laugh. “I had already been accepted into a few programs and I had set my sights on NC State, but Dean McGee kept calling.”

Attending Ohio State turned out to be the right decision for Russell, who earned a bachelor’s in industrial and systems engineering in 2010.

“I don’t think I could have had any experience like I had at The Ohio State University,” she explained. “It was great. It had its challenges, but it was really good.”  

As important as McGee and the Minority Engineering Program (MEP) were in attracting Russell to Ohio State, they were equally critical in making sure she—and other underrepresented students—excel at the university and beyond.

"It was like my home away from home. It is very interesting to be in such a large place and still feel alone,” Russell shared. “The MEP program made me feel safe at Ohio State.”

Now living in Los Angeles, Russell is a manager at EY (formerly Ernst & Young), where she helps global companies with product development, innovation and technology commercialization. She is also founder and CEO of the Daraja Collective, which aims to bridge the gap between engineering and entrepreneurship to advance the education and economic levels of underserved communities.

Diversity as strength

From its roots in the 1970s as a scholarship and tutoring program focused on attracting and retaining African American students, the Minority Engineering Program has developed into a robust and multi-faceted initiative focused on increasing the number of all underrepresented minorities— Black/African American, Hispanic/Latinx and Indigenous—who graduate from Ohio State with an engineering degree.

I think the administration in the College of Engineering was ready for a program like MEP,” said Minnie McGee, who helped grow the program from 1975 until she retired in 2015. “The thing that I value most was the support that I got from the administration—the dean, the associate deans, many department chairs—it was a group effort.”

Today more than 865 minority students have access to MEP’s services and programs, including a summer bridge program, peer-to-peer tutoring, supplemental instruction for students who want to deepen their knowledge, career exploration leadership seminars, hands-on learning opportunities, professional development workshops, a diversity career fair and more.

Staff also advise and work closely with four student organizations who provide additional professional development and outreach opportunities.

“It’s a program that spans over four decades. It has stood the test of time,” said Lisa Barclay, who was named the college’s interim chief diversity and inclusion officer and assistant dean in July. “It’s about building a community where students of color don’t just survive, but they can thrive. They are not just supported, but empowered.”

headshot of Ernest Levert
Ernest Levert

During his time at Ohio State, welding engineer Ernest Levert ’82 valued the Minority Engineering Program’s support and counsel. This month, the Lockheed Martin Fellow (Rocket Scientist) will retire after 34 years at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control in Dallas, where he supported projects with the International Space Station, Space Shuttle program, PAC3 intercept missile and more.

“The MEP program was very instrumental to me and my education,” Levert said. “Because of Dean McGee and MEP, I’m a very successful welding engineer.”

“Without MEP, a lot of the students would have dropped out, but they had a support structure there. The quarterly events, retreats, study groups we had, it was just one of the best programs.”

For some students, that support starts with the Pre First-year Academic and Career Engagement (PREFACE) Program that was established in 1977.

PREFACE begins with a three-week, in-person summer bridge program where students meet faculty and peers, learn about support resources and take classes in applied engineering mathematics, chemistry, engineering problem solving and technical writing.

a collage of three groups of PREFACE classes
PREFACE cohort photos from the 1970s, 1990s and 2010s.

Participants also enroll in autumn and spring seminar courses that enable them to explore engineering majors in depth.

Industrial and systems engineer Alejandro Nunez ’19, who grew up in Miami, Florida, happened to be in the last PREFACE class under McGee. Now a project manager with Epic Systems in Madison, Wisconsin, Nunez said PREFACE framed his whole college experience.

“Not only did I meet a group of new freshmen who I could be friends with, but I was introduced to so many resources and got a head start on college,” Nunez said. “It just made me want to be very involved in MEP and engineering organizations.”

headshot of Alejandro.
Alejandro Nunez

Nunez later served as an assistant for PREFACE and an MEP outreach camp. He was also involved with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, eventually becoming its president, and valued MEP’s industry connections.

“There are so many resources to [connect with] companies,” he said. “At the end of the day, students want jobs and careers, and MEP is a great conduit to do that.”

40 years of impact

Many of the more than 2,000 underrepresented minority students who graduated from Ohio State with an engineering degree since 1986 were supported by MEP and its dedicated staff.

It has also helped increase diversity in the college. Today, 9.2% of Ohio State engineering students are underrepresented minorities, compared to 2.9% in 1986.

But statistics don’t tell the whole story of the Minority Engineering Program’s impact.

“One of the things we’re most proud of is we’ve grown a lot of engineering leaders and faculty members,” Barclay said. “It’s not easy to recruit and graduate students at the bachelor’s level, to graduate students who pursue advanced engineering degrees takes a lot more.”

Chakka Manning ’02, ’04 is one of many alumni who earned advanced degrees. She holds a master’s in electrical engineering from Ohio State, a master’s in international management studies and an executive MBA. She is a member of the systems engineering senior staff for Aeronautics at Lockheed Martin in Dallas, Texas. As deputy integration project lead, Manning oversees software simulation efforts for U.S. Air Force jets.

headshot of Chakka Manning

MEP was a foundation for my career and career choices,” she said. “It's a key instrument within Ohio State and the College of Engineering to help students have their own space on campus that they call home.”

Another hallmark of the program is the importance it places on paying forward. Many alumni remain involved on campus—serving on advisory boards, visiting with students and more—as well as with local and national organizations.

One of the most powerful examples of paying forward is when MEP alumni banded together to create two new scholarship endowments in honor of McGee. By the end of fiscal year 2016, 172 donors gave more than $215,000 to establish the scholarship funds and provide opportunities for the next generation.

Brighter futures ahead

Recent events have made clear that while much has been achieved, there is more work to do.

“I know there's a lot of debate as to whether offices like MEP need to exist, but the answer will always be yes, until we reach parity,” said Stacyann Russell ’10. “And some of the things that we do within the MEP office obviously can be utilized everywhere and be beneficial to everyone.”

Barclay agrees and is optimistic about what can be achieved in the future.

“What excites me the most is it’s not the Minority Engineering Program staff or people who work in diversity who are now focused on this very important work,” Barclay said. “You have an organic movement where individuals are saying diversity, equity and inclusion needs to be interwoven into the fabric of the values and the mission of the College of Engineering. I’m excited because I see allyship and a shared responsibility across faculty and staff to ensure all students feel a sense of community and succeed.”

If you would like to support the Minority Engineering Program at Ohio State, consider making a gift to the Minority Engineering Program Priority Fund.

by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, 

Categories: CollegeAlumni