Engineer and former Atlanta Falcon William White is a regional vice president of Project Lead The Way, a national non-profit organization that provides STEM curricula to more than 5,000 elementary, middle and high schools.
For students today, the fields of science, technology, engineering and math hold the promise of a successful future. But America’s top companies want a diversified workforce, and STEM fields are far from diverse. As a black man and a father of three children, this concerns me. I know the barriers so many minority students face — poverty, poor educational systems, and a lack of role models in the STEM fields.
But I also know we can overcome those obstacles, because I did.
Seventy-four percent of U.S. scientists and engineers are white, according to the National Science Foundation. More than 55 percent are men. Less than 15 percent of scientists and engineers are from underrepresented minority groups. But my personal journey is evidence it doesn’t have to be that way.
I grew up in a rough neighborhood in Lima, Ohio, with six older siblings. My oldest brother was involved with drugs. I saw a lot that a young child shouldn’t see. You could say I had all the factors to live a life of excuses. But I’m a competitive person, and luckily for me, my life was filled with opportunities to prove people wrong.
In sixth grade, we moved to a different area of town. My new principal would see me playing football at recess, tackling my classmates. “You’re not going to make it in football,” he told me one day. “You need to focus on school and study as hard as you play football.”
That day, I accepted his challenge. From that point on, I was motivated to be the best at everything – whether it was in the classroom or on the field.
During the summer before ninth grade, I visited my dad at work, in a foundry for General Motors where my older brothers worked, too. If you’ve never been in a foundry in July, it’s extremely hot. The only air-conditioned office in the place belonged to an engineer. That was another pivotal moment for me. I didn’t know what an engineer did, but I thought, “I’m going to have to work here, so that’s what I’m going to be.”
Throughout high school, I competed against my friends for grades; I took advanced geometry and honors English because they were taking those classes. Because of that competition, I received good grades and was accepted to Ohio State University to study engineering and play football. I worked hard in school, determined to become an engineer and prove everyone back home wrong. I didn’t rely on the dream of playing professional football; in fact, I didn’t know I would have that opportunity until my senior year.
I was blessed to have had a successful 11-year NFL career. But playing in the NFL was a lot of luck; my career could have been over with one injury. Earning my degree in engineering and disciplining myself to study and get good grades was all up to me, though. Luck had nothing to do with it.
The lesson in all of this is that it’s all about choices. I made the decision as a teenager that I wanted to be the best in the classroom as well as on the football field. I made the choice because I wanted a better life for myself, and I saw the possibility that air-conditioned office of the GM engineer held.
If I promise any high school athlete they’ll play professionally if they work out every day at 6 a.m., give their all every day at practice, and do everything their coach says, there is not one student who wouldn’t take me up on that. I can’t make that promise, but I can make a similar promise when it comes to pursuing STEM: Any student who takes a rigorous STEM program beginning at least in high school, majors in a STEM field in college and maintains a healthy GPA will have the opportunity for an in-demand career that pays well and supports a successful life.
This is true regardless of a person’s background, socioeconomic status or gender. We need to offer that encouragement to all students, especially women and minorities, and give them the tools they need to follow through and build the life they dream of.
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