A Black college president on importance of STEM: ‘I never heard of engineering until college’

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Clayton State University’s new leader wants students exposed earlier to science and technology fields

In July, T. Ramon Stuart became president of Clayton State University. He is the first Black president of the 52-year-old public campus, coming to Clayton State from Fort Valley State University where he had been provost and vice president of academic affairs since 2016.

Stuart earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the West Virginia University and a doctorate in higher education administration from Ohio University. In his first guest column for the AJC education blog, Stuart addresses the need to expose more students of color to engineering and other STEM disciplines.

By T. Ramon Stuart

Growing up in the coalfields of southern West Virginia as an African American in the 1980s presented challenges that I failed to realize until later in life. My county, McDowell County, once boasted a population of more than 100,000 and had the nickname “Little New York” now has a population less than 20,000 and the unfortunate distinction of being one of the poorest counties in America.

My humble beginnings started prior to my birth. My mother quit school in the ninth grade and had me at 19. She raised me as a single parent on her $300 per month welfare check. However, she always valued education and eventually got her GED.

But she didn’t stop there. She hitchhiked 64 miles a day to get an associate and bachelor’s degree before purchasing our first family car when I was in the fourth grade as she completed her master’s degree.

My mother’s educational journey concluded with a doctorate. I can only appreciate now the monumental feat I witnessed that I could not – and would not – understand until later in my life.

This is because while my mother worked tirelessly to expose me to life’s opportunities, there were things my small county could not provide me. For instance, I never heard of the word engineering until my sophomore year in college. Once I learned more about this profession, I chose it as my major and future career.

At the time, I did not realize how rare it was for a minority student to study engineering. Though African Americans make up 12% of the U.S. population, they make up just 5% of the engineering workforce. Women and Latinos are similarly underrepresented.

Engineering is part of what academia calls STEM education – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM is important because it educates and trains individuals with skills that are essential in our complex, technology-driven global economy. It provides the science that is necessary to meet our challenges in everyday life.

Employer demand for STEM skills is enormous and will only continue to grow. And, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the wage for STEM jobs is about 70% more than the national average salary. In 20 years, 80% of all jobs will require technical skills.

Though America will need to add a million more STEM professionals to meet workforce demands by 2022, African American youth are the least likely racial group to enter technology professions, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Creating more minority STEM professionals is not just an economic need, it is a social need as well. By eliminating barriers facing minority students who wish to be exposed to STEM, we will not only broaden the economic opportunities of minority students for a modern workforce but also empower them to be agents of change in our increasingly diverse society.

Therefore, how can we encourage more minority students to pursue a STEM education?

We must expose all minority students to STEM early in their education.

Successful scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and other technology-related experts must serve as mentors to all young minority students, exposing them to minority STEM professionals. For example, as an engineering student, I had no mentors to teach me how to apply for internships or build relationships in the engineering field.

Build new teaching practices on STEM in schools that appeal to the lives of all minority students.

Create a greater sense of inclusion in academia around STEM education that is welcoming to all minority students.

Lastly, we must demonstrate to minority students that promoting a STEM education is not anti-liberal arts education. We can align a vision that allows all minority student to have the power to choose a vast array of career choices that are important personally and to society.

My engineering education, my years as a professor, and now my journey as a university president were more than I ever dreamed as a poor African American kid growing up in Appalachia. It was made possible because of the opportunities that arose through education. As an African American engineer with a doctorate in higher education administration, I took the road less traveled because it was foreign to me. And I want to expose that road and all others to minority students who are considering their personal path in life.

Having previously served at two historically Black colleges and universities, I grew fond of meeting students where they are and helping them go places never imagined. After all, this is what others did for my mother and me — creating opportunities to help transform lives through higher education.

As the first African American president of Clayton State University, I want to inspire and expose our students to all the possibilities in life and make dreams real, while providing anyone, like my mother, or even myself, the opportunity to get a degree regardless of circumstances.

The author of this guest column, Dr. T. Ramon Stuart, is the newly installed president of Clayton State University.