Nehemiah Key earns fellowship that’s bringing diversity to aerospace industry

Posted: April 8, 2021
Nehemiah Key
Nehemiah Key is an inaugural Patti Grace Smith Fellow.

An aerospace engineering student at The Ohio State University has been selected for the inaugural Patti Grace Smith Fellowship Class of 2021.

Nehemiah Key is one of 43 Black undergraduate students nationally who have been named fellows by the non-profit program that's helping bring diversity to the U.S. aerospace industry. Patti Grace Smith Fellows earn a challenging internship at one of the nation's leading aerospace firms, a living wage, two hand-picked personal mentors and a cash grant of approximately $2,000 to support professional or school expenses.

Key, who will intern at L3 Harris Technologies in Clifton, New Jersey, learned of the fellowship opportunity through the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals. But his interest in the field began back in middle school, he said.

“My dad is a STEM educator and he motivated me to pursue engineering from an early age,” said Key, a native of Flossmoor, Illinois. “Later in middle school, I started to learn more about space and the universe, and so I became interested in astronomy, but I didn't want to abandon engineering. Once I found out about aerospace engineering, I’ve been determined to pursue it ever since.”

At L3 Harris Technologies, a global aerospace and defense company, Key will join the electronic warfare department as a systems engineer. While he isn’t yet sure what his day-to-day work will entail, he hopes the experience will help shed light on which branch of aerospace interests him the most as a future career.

“I'm leaning more towards the astronautical side such as rockets, satellites, and space structures, but I am very open to a lot of areas,” said Key, who expects to graduate in 2023.

Each Patti Grace Smith Fellow is currently enrolled in the first or second year of a bachelor's degree program or an associate's degree program and earned a fellowship after a three-round selection process in which they were vetted by a group of aerospace industry professionals, rising-star early career employees and corporate employers.

“The Patti Grace Smith Fellowship exists to serve extraordinarily talented students who possess everything that is needed to thrive in aerospace, but who come from a community where talent has long been overlooked by our industry,” said Col. B. Alvin Drew, Jr., (USAF, Ret.), a two-time Space Shuttle astronaut and a co-founder of the fellowship.

“These new Patti Grace Smith Fellows inspire us with their drive, their intellect, their work ethic, and their deep commitment to advancing the state of the aerospace industry—not only in terms of our science and engineering, but also in terms of how we cultivate and honor talent in our workforce.”

The Patti Grace Smith Fellowship was created in 2020 to combat underrepresentation of Black employees in the nation’s aerospace workforce. While Black people make up 13.4% of the U.S. population and 15.3% of American undergraduate and graduate students, a recent study conducted by Aviation Week Network found that only 6% of U.S. aerospace and defense workers and only 3% of aerospace executives are Black.

The program's name was chosen to honor an aerospace industry leader who overcame a system of legalized racial segregation. As a young girl, Patti Grace Smith (then Patricia Jones) was one of a dozen Black students to integrate Tuskegee High School, and was a plaintiff in a landmark case that integrated the public schools in Alabama, as upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States. Her career was highlighted by her role leading the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation in the early days of the nation's space renaissance.

To learn more about the program and see the complete list of 2021 fellows, visit

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications |