At the T.D. Jakes Foundation, we want to amplify proven programs, not recreate the wheel. As part of our Take Five blog series, we’re asking business, education and nonprofit leaders to answer five questions about their work and what we can all do to bring greater diversity, inclusion and gender equity to STEAM fields.
This week, we meet Serita Acker, Executive Director of Programs for Educational Enrichment and Retention and Women in Science and Engineering at Clemson University.
1. What are some of the hurdles that people of color must overcome to pursue careers in STEAM?
Inequities in Education and Math Literacy
One of the major hurdles is inadequate preparation in mathematics. Math is the most important “gatekeeper” course in a STEAM career pathway. If people of color are unable to take advanced math in K-12, they are often ruled out (or rule themselves out) of certain career choices because of the lack of math preparation.
Many of our youth are not aware of STEAM careers. They do not realize how much STEAM affects their daily lives. To address this issue, it is imperative that we meet our youth where they are. Where do our youth spend most of their time? Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, and the list goes on. However, do our youth realize that computer scientists develop the software for these platforms, and that computer engineers create and design the electronics that they enjoy so much? Our youth need to be informed that the clothes and shoes they wear, the products they use for their face and hair, and the vehicles they ride in were all created by STEAM professionals. It is also important to spread the word that not all STEAM jobs require a four-year degree. There are many well-paid and respected opportunities in the STEAM field that require a two-year degree or certification.
Representation in STEAM
In addition to inadequate math preparation and a lack of career awareness, another hurdle that people of color must overcome to pursue careers in STEAM is the overall lack of STEAM role models in media and entertainment. Ask yourself, “When was the last time I watched a movie or TV show about a person of color who was a scientist, engineer, or mathematician?” You’ll probably answer, “Well, I saw ‘Hidden Figures’ when it came out in 2016.” Me, too, and it was a great film, but that was four years ago. Students of color need to see people who look like them portrayed in these fields.
2. How do you recruit students from underrepresented communities to study STEAM and then keep them in these programs once they get here?
Recruiting Underrepresented Communities
At Clemson University, we offer a variety of programs to recruit students from underrepresented communities, offering different events for elementary, middle and high school students. We host summer camps, visit schools, organize informational sessions and partner with nonprofit organizations. One of our most successful programs is our yearly STEM Day. Every spring, we invite faith-based organizations to bring their youth groups to Clemson University’s campus. These groups are typically composed of middle-school-aged boys and girls. Sometimes their visit marks their first time on a college campus, or their first time at Clemson. During their visit, we are intentional about having them interact with our current STEM undergraduates of color, as well as STEM alumni. Our goal is that, by the end of the day, the youth not only develop a better understanding of, and interest in, STEM, but can also see their future selves in STEM careers.
Retaining Underrepresented Communities
As the Executive Director of Programs for Educational Enrichment and Retention (PEER) and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), it is our mission to retain underrepresented populations in STEM majors. Clemson University uses mentoring, life coaching, and tutoring to help retain our underrepresented students in STEM. The main component of our program is mentoring. A student who belongs to an underrepresented population and has been accepted into the College of Engineering, Computing, and Applied Sciences (CECAS) at Clemson is automatically assigned to a trained PEER or WISE mentor. The mentor acts as a guide to a successful transition into CECAS. Due to these and other initiatives, our program marked a victory in 2018 when Clemson University became the nation’s 13th highest producer of African American undergraduates receiving baccalaureate degrees from predominantly white institutions (Diverse Issues in Higher Education Magazine, 2018 Edition).
3. This year will be especially tough for both incoming students, who’ve missed out on months of instruction, and new college graduates, who are facing the worst job market in years. What are some of the steps you are taking to support students during this difficult time?
Clemson University provides a lot of support for all our students, and we have been even more intentional with our programs to help students during this difficult time. For incoming students in underrepresented populations, we offer a summer bridge program called the PEER and WISE Experience (PWE). Due to COVID-19, the program will be online this year. The students will have the opportunity to earn three hours of college credit. The coursework includes introduction to math, general engineering, and research. We will offer online tutoring for these courses. Even during this virtual learning environment, students will be able to meet current faculty, staff, and other incoming students.
Thankfully, many of our May graduates secured jobs prior to COVID-19. However, for those who might need assistance we are working with the career center, alumni, and faculty members to support them during this time and help them find opportunities.
4. What’s one small step we can all take to promote diversity and inclusion?
Always ask: “Who is at the table? Whose viewpoint is missing?” Imagine the game-changing innovations that could become a reality if a more diverse group of people were intentionally included.
5. Who is your biggest role model and why?
My biggest role model is my grandmother. She lived to be 97 years old! Although she had little formal education, she had strong determination and confidence. She also had a heart of gold. She truly loved and cared for everyone she encountered. She was an amazing cook and she loved to prepare meals for people. I believe if she was given the opportunity, she would have owned her own business. My grandmother was the one to encourage me to pursue higher education. She once told me, “an education is one thing no one can take away from you.” Because of those words, I became the first person in my family to graduate from college. My grandmother instilled in me servanthood, love, and giving.
If you’re interested in answering our Take Five, send us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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