49-year-old program gives UD’s young Black engineers crucial strength and support

Every college freshman can tell you a bit about mental stress. They all feel those early episodes of aching loneliness. Then slowly, they start to assimilate and thrive, settling into their home-away-from-home at last.

For America’s Black and brown engineering students, those isolated feelings aren’t always so easily soothed by time. In classes, many continue to feel unwelcome. Alone in the crowds, they yearn for a sense of belonging.

And so for the past 49 years at UD, these students of color have naturally gravitated to one another, and toward the modest DuPont Hall office of Marianne Johnson, manager of a program called RISE—Resources to Inspire Successful Engineers.

Marianne Johnson, manager of the RISE program. “It’s not just about whether a student can do well in a class,” she said. “They have to have that feeling of belonging, that sense that they’re in the right environment to be successful. When one is missing, then the other suffers.”

There, they’re sure to find wise words of advice, some new forever friends, and a place to create what they lacked: An enduring feeling of community, unity and strength.

When RISE students feel overwhelmed, they know they can rely on a workshop or mentoring session to keep them on track. When they despair over the notoriously brutal academic demands of engineering, they know older RISE classmates and even alumni will step up to help.

And on those days when the subtle and not-so-subtle racial biases seem to linger on campus, RISE students at least know they are not alone.

“It’s not just about whether a student can do well in a class,” Johnson said. “They have to have that feeling of belonging, that sense that they’re in the right environment to be successful. When one is missing, then the other suffers.”

With a newfound sense of their place in academia, RISE alumni say, they emerge from college figuratively equipped with both a shield and sword—ready to defend their careers against racism, but also willing to fight it.

“We were all trying to make each other better,” said undergraduate and graduate alumna Monique Hite Head, now an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at UD. “A lot of us knew our scholarships depended on how we did in the classroom. And we knew that RISE was a tool that we could use to help the greater society, but also to build the minority community.”

That sense of common purpose endures long after their days in college are done. Informal networks pop up to keep UD’s minority engineers connected, and guide them toward opportunities. Their spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood ultimately inspires a passion to do well not just for themselves, but for the younger students who follow.

“They get the benefit of not only what they gain from the program, but from the people who are anxious to give back,” said Johnson.

RISE alumni Ernest Jones (right) has continued to support UD’s black students through internships at his company, even as son Connor (left) begins his journey at UD.

That urge to pay it forward inspired RISE alumni Ernest Jones to arrange internships for today’s RISE students at his North Carolina employer, technology provider RedHat. “We have to participate [in helping students]. That’s key,” said Jones, who earned his mechanical engineering degree in 1992. “Shame on me if I didn’t bring those opportunities back to a school that provided me so much.

“What RISE really afforded us was a pool of human resources, and a mentoring program that allowed us to have a big brother, a big sister.’’ His time in the private sector only reinforced his belief that the scientific fields needed to be far more proactive in recruiting and supporting minorities.

“The numbers are depressing,” he said of 2015-16 statistics showing that Blacks make up 12% of the U.S. work force, but just 5% of science and engineering workers. “We don’t have a fair representation that you would expect our companies to have. The real need is convincing the kids to pursue opportunities in programs like RISE.”

After a year of national outrage over social inequities, Double Dels Joan and Michael Carragher decided now was the time to make a donation to the RISE program. “It’s been eye-opening to learn that once they get there, some students might not have others in their family who are able to relate to their struggles, and they might find it hard to relate to the other students,” Joan said.

It’s also a constant challenge accommodating those students at a time when colleges face their own funding challenges. That’s one of the reasons Double Dels and longtime donors Joan and Michael Carragher decided to contribute directly to the program this spring.

“The idea of helping students who got to college, but maybe need some help staying, really kind of spoke to us,” said Joan Carragher, Class of 1984. “It’s been eye-opening to learn that once they get there, some students might not have others in their family who are able to relate to their struggles, and they might find it hard to relate to the other students.”

The global disruptions of 2020 only heightened that sense of need, she added. “I think this whole Covid experience has put a magnifying glass on the wide array of people who need help, who just need a step up. I think we’ve been kind of walking around with blinders on in our society.”

Amid that national reckoning over race, Michael Carragher, a 1984 engineering graduate himself, is continuing to push back against the inequities he sees in his own line of work. As CEO and president of the East Coast-spanning VHB engineering firm, he leads an industry effort to coldly appraise—and improve—professional diversity and inclusion.

“We’re working to find ways to enrich our company by engaging people with a broader array of perspectives and life experiences,” he said. UD’s RISE program also benefits from that growing sense of corporate responsibility—the program is supported by such high-profile firms as JPMorgan Chase, DuPont, Gore and Merck.

Levi Thompson, now dean of the College of Engineering, is a RISE alumni.

The potential of these “historically underrepresented” students to have impact is beyond question. Alumni who were RISE participants include Dean of Engineering Levi Thompson, former Delaware Cabinet secretary Dr. Kara Odom Walker, and Pierre Yao, UD Mechanical Engineering professor.

Names and titles like those inspire students like Latifa Ali, a 2019 mechanical engineering alumna who is already working her way up the ladder at Unilever, where she was just promoted to process engineer and challenged to improve production line performance.

“I stuck to it, and here I am,” she said. “It wasn’t an easy thing, I’ll tell you that. I didn’t think the culture would impact me as much as it did. So to have RISE as a safety net is something I’m really, really grateful for. I cannot even imaging how difficult it would be to go through the first two years without a support system.”

How to help

Support to the RISE program helps ensure the continued success of our underrepresented students. To mentor current students, please consider joining our Job Shadow program and Career Acceleration Network. Internship or job opportunities can also be shared with current students through the Hire a Hen program.

The idea of helping students who got to college, but maybe need some help staying, really kind of spoke to us.”
– Joan Carragher, Class of 1984