Published February 22, 2023
For University at Buffalo alum Akirah Matthews, being a civil engineering student as a Black woman had its challenges.
She didn’t see many people who looked like her in her classes. Sometimes she changed her personality just to get along with others. Above all, she felt constant pressure to prove she belonged.
That changed once she joined UB’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program.
“There are many lessons that LSAMP taught me, but the main one was that I deserve to be here,” Matthews says.
Thanks to a $2.5 million grant renewal from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the program, housed in the university’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), will continue to support students of color pursuing STEM degrees.
The funding, which began last month and runs through 2027, will allow SEAS to provide tutoring and mentoring, as well as opportunities to conduct research and attend conferences, to approximately 50 students this year.
The grant will be shared among the 15 institutions part of SUNY LSAMP, a collaboration led by the University at Albany that has received continuous NSF support since launching in 1996.
“We are thrilled that the grant was renewed for another five-year cycle,” says Letitia Thomas, SEAS assistant dean for diversity and director of UB’s LSAMP program. “We have had a number of students in the program who have graduated and gone on to get advanced degrees and have wonderful employment experiences, and we are excited to continue that work with the NSF and our faculty mentors.”
LSAMP aims to diversify the nation’s STEM workforce by supporting students who are historically underrepresented in STEM fields, such as African Americans, Alaskan Natives, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Pacific Islanders.
Black and Hispanic people account for just 14% of U.S. engineers despite making up nearly 30% of the total U.S. workforce, according to the Pew Research Center.
“LSAMP really seeks to bring STEM to a group of students who in the past may have not had the opportunity to get a degree or be employed in STEM,” Thomas says.
There has been some progress. SUNY LSAMP institutions saw underrepresented undergraduates enrolled in STEM programs increase 722% between 1996 and 2019. In addition, the number of minority students receiving a STEM bachelor’s degree increased 814% during that time.
“The message that I'm always giving is: Let's meet the students where they are and bring them up to where we want them to be,” Thomas says.
A pillar of LSAMP is the summer research program. The 10-week, on-campus paid internship allows underrepresented students to get hands-on research experience with faculty members.
“The summer research program was just the beginning,” says Winston Mills, who participated in the program as a rising sophomore in 2018.
Mills went on to do research as work study, tutor other students, attend National Society for Black Engineers (NSBE) conferences, and host a club for male students of color. He also learned about scholarship opportunities and met professional engineers.
“All these things and more helped me land the job I have today,” says Mills, who received his master’s in computer science in 2021 and is now a software engineer for Cisco.
In some cases, underrepresented students need that additional support to jumpstart their academic careers, says Thomas. Many are first-generation college students and come from high schools that don’t specialize in STEM. Other times they’re more cautious to approach faculty about research opportunities.
“This program sort of opens the door,” Thomas says. “And if students walk through that door, then there's a whole lot of other doors that they get to walk through.”
Sometimes the greatest support they need is simply connecting with students who look like them.
Matthews, who received her master’s degree in civil engineering in 2021 and now works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Buffalo District, says she didn’t have any Black and Hispanic friends studying engineering until she joined LSAMP in her sophomore year.
Those friendships then gave her the confidence to join other groups for students of color, such as UB STEMinism, a support group for women in STEM.
“I no longer felt like I didn’t belong,” she says. “Instead, I wanted to help other people of color in STEM avoid how I felt.”
Mills says having people of color in his class made it easier for him to talk openly. On the other hand, when he was the only person of color in his class, he felt like he had to be the standard for all people of color.
“That put a lot of pressure on how I acted,” he says.
Thomas has seen how this pressure affects students. Sometimes, she says, it even discourages them from joining LSAMP altogether.
“I had a student tell me, ‘I don't want anyone to think that I can't make it on my own. I don't want to prove the people who don't think I can do this right,’” she says. “And so, students internalize these feelings.”
Thomas can remember another student expressing trepidation about a club flier showing himself and other Black male engineering students. The student worried that he and his classmates didn’t look like engineering students.
“He had internalized the stereotypes that people put on Black males,” Thomas says. “I told him, ‘People may look at that photo and take something else from it, but no one can take away the fact that you're all engineering students pursuing one of the hardest majors on campus, and you're making it.’”
Thomas can rattle off LSAMP alumni’s accomplishments better than their LinkedIn pages.
At least four are working at Northrop Grumman in states from California and Florida to Maryland. One is getting a chemical engineering PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Another is still right here at UB getting her PhD in material science.
Thomas hopes to better quantify former students’ progress, perhaps even with a peer-reviewed study conducted by SEAS faculty.
That’s just one of the goals for this new grant cycle.
There are plans to partner with private industry as well. GlobalFoundries and Regeneron will offer stipends to LSAMP students for undergraduate summer research, while Brookhaven National Laboratory and Feinstein Institutes of Medical Research have also pledged to support the project.
There may also be more partnerships among SUNY LSAMP institutions, including a possible research symposium at the University at Albany.
“We hope to do some more collaborations with Buffalo State University,” Thomas adds. “They're so close by and serve a large number of underrepresented students, so we really think that there's a great opportunity for their students to feed into our graduate programs that we have here at UB.”
LSAMP is just one of SEAS’ Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) initiatives, which aim to recruit and retain more students of color, hire more diverse faculty and staff, and remove bias in student politics and procedures.
The school has already been recognized as a national leader in diversity and inclusion. It received the bronze award with exemplar status from the American Society of Engineering Education’s (ASEE) Diversity Recognition Program in 2019.
In addition to the LSAMP grant, SEAS also recently received $1.5 million in NSF funding to develop courses that examine the societal impacts of engineering and computer science. and put social justice theory into practice.
These efforts come at a time when campus diversity and inclusion programs are under scrutiny in other states, like Florida, Oklahoma and South Carolina.
“People are really pushing back against these programs,” Thomas says. “If the United States were a different place, we wouldn't need these programs. But every day there are headlines and things that happen that tell us that we do need these opportunities for students who get locked out for reasons that are no fault of their own.”
Matthews got the chance to provide those opportunities to others during her time as a UB student. She would volunteer once a month to teach STEM to kindergartners at a predominantly Black and Hispanic elementary school in the city of Buffalo, as part of SEAS’s partnership with National Grid and Westminster Community Charter School.
The students not only saw STEM as something fun, Matthews says, but as importantly, saw someone who looks like them doing it.
“It lets them know that this is something that they can do,” Matthews says. “And that their skin color shouldn’t prevent them from doing something they enjoy.”