University of Pittsburgh | Pitt Home | Find People | Contact Us  


Photographs by Ric Evans

African Americans can be hard to find among graduating classes throughout the country in science-driven fields. Pitt’s School of Engineering has been a notable exception, garnering national recognition. But the program that made that happen during the past 30 years is changing as part of the University’s new approach toward diversity.

Diverse Paths

Cindy Gill

Vice Provost and Dean of Students Jack Daniel in 1998 told the University’s leaders they had to make diversity a part of the fabric of campus life.

Even in first grade, the inquisitive youngster knew what he wanted to be—one of those doctors who took bad stuff out of the body and used shiny tools and thread to patch things up. Surgeon is the word he would later learn. Year after year, he did well in science and math classes, keeping his dream on track. Then, in sixth grade, the young African American was among several students selected for a field trip to watch a surgeon in action. Witnessing the procedure left a lasting impression on him. "It was gross," recalls William Barr. That ended his medical career.

In search of a new profession, he decided to become a race car driver, pushing hot-metal machines way past legal speed limits. But then, while watching a race on television, he saw a bad accident, and that ended his Indy 500 career before he had completed middle school. Meanwhile, his American history teacher convinced him to participate in Investing Now, a Pitt program that helps students like Barr prepare for careers in engineering and science. That program changed everything. By 11th grade, he knew he was going to be an engineer.

When Barr arrived at the University of Pittsburgh three years ago, the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES) ranked the University’s School of Engineering first in Pennsylvania for graduating Blacks with BS and PhD degrees and third nationally for PhDs.

As Barr was gearing up for college, though, the engineering school’s support program for achieving diversity was changing. Even for high school students like Barr—who had a 3.8 grade point average at Pittsburgh’s Schenley High School—the transition from 12th grade to freshman year is difficult. Pitt’s freshman engineering curriculum includes chemistry, physics, and calculus in the first semester alone. The best students, no matter their race, may struggle.

One significant reason for the difficult transition stems from disparities in academic quality and resources among K-12 school districts. Top students from, say, a poor school can find themselves stumbling when placed in a class with top students from a wealthy district or from private schools. It’s a fact of life in America. Consequently, educationally disadvantaged students, including those with good academic records, are invited to participate in the School of Engineering’s precollege transition program.

For more than 30 years, the IMPACT Program, created by Pitt’s Karl Lewis, provided tutoring, mandatory study sessions, counseling, financial aid, whatever it took to sustain students’ academic momentum. IMPACT recruited top students like Barr but also paid particular attention to what Lewis calls "hidden jewels"—diverse students whose high ambitions and glimmering promise made up for less-than-perfect grades and SAT scores. These students were admitted conditionally and had to prove themselves. Lewis watched over all of them like a tough-love father, concerned, involved, but firm.

In July 2001, Barr arrived at Tower C to begin the engineering school’s six-week summer program with about 30 other incoming students. They had sessions in precalculus and writing as well as guidance with time management, study skills, and principles of critical thinking. "It was college-level work on what seemed like a mix between a high school and college program," says Barr, who found the schedule intense. "I’m glad I was overwhelmed in the summer before I took credits during the school year."

Karl Lewis

That summer program was a key component of IMPACT, which was in place throughout the years that led to the school’s top graduation rankings for Blacks statewide and nationally. Barr, now entering his fourth year at Pitt, is on course for earning a BS degree in chemical engineering. He’s already considering graduate schools and, ultimately, wants to be an engineering professor.

Barr’s success is no surprise to Lewis, who had an interesting career path of his own. A native of Barbados, he says he received a first-rate education in the island’s British-derived school system. As a young man, he immigrated to the United States and received a scholarship to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. He survived on part-time jobs, bussing dishes, mopping floors. He graduated with honors, a savings account, and no debt. But he couldn’t get a job. He believes the reason was his race. So he decided to pursue an academic career. He received a scholarship from Purdue University, where he earned MS and PhD degrees in civil engineering.

"While I was a college student, I became aware of the small number of Black Americans in engineering and considered it a waste of human talent," he says. "I wanted to do something that would make a difference." After graduating from Purdue, he vowed he would do what he could to help other Blacks succeed in engineering.

A Purdue professor encouraged Lewis to apply for a faculty position at Pitt. In 1966, the University hired him to teach civil engineering at a time when few Blacks held faculty positions here. Once at Pitt, he didn’t forget his vow. He began to visit local high schools, where he talked about careers in engineering. He organized trips to campus for interested students. He visited high schools in Philadelphia and New York, too, recruiting potential students. Initially, he says, most of these activities were supported by his own money, time, and wits.

Lewis, now a professor emeritus, devoted virtually his entire career at Pitt to helping students of color succeed in engineering. For his efforts, he has received several accolades locally and nationally. Throughout the years, not all of his students survived even the summer program. Some weren’t ready for the commitment required by a university education. Some weren’t suited for engineering. But, of those who survived, many received engineering degrees and found careers in government, industry, and academia, or as entrepreneurs. He names graduates who were hired at IBM, General Electric, General Motors, and several other well-known corporations. Some alumni earned MS and PhD degrees at Pitt, Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago, to name a few. Successes like these are among the reasons the University scored well in the AAES survey of engineering schools nationwide.

Lewis retired in 1999, though he still teaches an occasional engineering course, and advises the state’s Act 101 program, which is Pennsylvania’s Higher Education Equal Opportunity Act. With the act’s passage in 1971, Pennsylvania colleges and universities began to develop access programs that helped low-income disadvantaged students go to college. IMPACT was supported for years with Act 101 funding, and Lewis is a former director and revered pioneer in the state’s program.

Gerald Holder, Pitt’s U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering, calls diversity in the workplace a reality and an asset in the global economy.

Even before Lewis’ retirement, Pitt’s approach to diversity began to transform, along with the institution’s rising competitive profile. Change began with the arrival of Mark A. Nordenberg in the chancellor’s role. Between fall 1995 and fall 2003, it became much more competitive for undergraduates to attend Pitt. By the end of that time period, applications increased by 120 percent, but only 48.3 percent were accepted in 2003, down from 79.1 percent in 1995. Students from the top 10 percent of their high school classes made up 43 percent of the 2003 entering class, versus 19 percent in 1995; students from the top 20 percent comprised 73 percent of the entering class, up from 39 percent in 1995.

These higher standards occurred, in part, because the University’s Board of Trustees, working with Nordenberg and Provost James V. Maher, established some tough standards for themselves. In 1996, the board set essential institutional priorities, including the aggressive pursuit of excellence in undergraduate education. Within this particular goal, the board specifically stated the need to attract a more diverse student body.

In a broader sense, Maher began making deans directly accountable for meeting student and faculty diversity goals. And a key member of Maher’s staff, Jack Daniel, submitted in 1998 a confidential set of recommendations to the University’s leadership called "A Matter of Higher Expectations." Daniel emphasized the need to make diversity a part of the fabric of campus life.

"You can’t do it with a diversity person here and there. The schools need to embrace it," says Daniel, who is now vice provost for undergraduate studies and dean of students. The Deans Council, comprising all the deans of the University, adopted these recommendations, as approved by the Chancellor and provost. "Once everybody started buying into these higher expectations," says Daniel, "the next thing you know, we’ve got African American students in the University Honors College. We’ve got African American students winning Marshall Scholarships, being nominated for Rhodes scholarships. Things began to change."

What exactly happened to bring about this new landscape? "I often tell people I have a chemical formula for success with diversity," says Daniel. He moves a finger up and down, drawing a formula in the air: Want To. "Want to," he emphasizes. "If you establish the institutional will, if you really want to do it, you will find a legitimate way to do it."

Among those on campus who "wanted to" was Gerald Holder, who is Pitt’s U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering and professor of chemical and petroleum engineering. He was a member of the provost’s ad hoc committee on diversity, and his vision for the school coincided with the University’s newfound approach to such initiatives. Holder believes that in a technology-based society, engineering is a fundamental skill. "Minorities and women constitute a majority of the American population," he says. "It’s important that their talent be part of the engineering work force." He’s also aware that diversity in the workplace is a reality—and an asset—in an increasingly global economy.

The engineering school’s strategic plan, developed in the late 1990s, spotlights diversity as one of five key priorities. When Lewis retired, Holder and his search committee hired Sylvanus N. Wosu as assistant dean for diversity and minority affairs. Wosu had been working as interim dean of the Natural Sciences Division at Dillard University, an historically Black institution in New Orleans, where he was an endowed professor of physics and mathematics. He holds MS and PhD degrees in engineering physics, an MS degree in industrial and applied physics, and a BS degree in petroleum engineering.

Sylvanus Wosu, assistant dean for diversity and minority affairs, implemented diversity-training workshops attended by virtually all new engineering faculty, students, and staff.

In his years of advising students and observing various programs, Wosu developed ideas about how to create an environment that would help diverse students feel confident tackling technical disciplines like science, math, and engineering. When he arrived at Pitt in July 2000, he began to put his plan into action as PECAP (Pitt Engineering Career Access Program) with $559,494 in funds from the U.S. Department of Education, plus support from the engineering school, the provost’s office, Act 101, and PPG Industries. The program’s goal, essentially, is to create an environment conducive to genuine diversity. Earlier this year, PECAP won the Chancellor’s Affirmative Action Award.

Wosu’s plan kept some of the school’s successful programs in place, including Investing Now, which helps precollege students as it did William Barr. And he added a program called CARE to partner even more with high school teachers and encourage disadvantaged high school students to earn engineering degrees at Pitt. For college-level support services, he reimagined IMPACT. The result was the creation of EXCEL, which stresses the quality and performance of students, increased student retention, and preparation of students for graduate study. By increasing the number of underrepresented students who earn PhD degrees, he hopes to create a diverse pool for potential faculty hiring at Pitt and other universities. EXCEL also has a summer program that is two weeks long and is open to any student who tests into precalculus.

Changes by Wosu didn’t stop there. He implemented diversity-training workshops attended by virtually all new engineering faculty, students, and staff. Along those lines, February is now diversity month at the school, reinforcing intercultural understanding among students, faculty, and staff. Throughout the month, facilitators provide classes with titles like Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands?; The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language around the World; and New Rules of Etiquette for a Changing Society. The classes are available for all students.

Wosu also sought to eliminate the isolated nature of the diversity program by making it more a part of the engineering school. Rather than having PECAP staff and students settle for things like congregating in "one little office assigned to our program," Wosu insists that PECAP has access to all available conference space in Benedum Hall, which is the primary location of the School of Engineering. "Everybody was afraid of mixing up and integrating things. I had to dismantle that," he says. Then adds, with a laugh, "I’m glad I came with tenure."

Daniel says this approach is something new. "If you want a program to be successful, it can never be the case that over here in this little corner is a diversity program, and diversity is the business of the people over here in this little program. Engineering has done something different. Diversity is not isolated. It’s something that’s integrated into the whole school."

All engineering students now have access to the same freshman support services. Underrepresented students will be assigned PECAP staff advisers, while other freshmen will be assigned other advisers. But the same services are available to everyone.

That’s the heart of the University’s new philosophy on diversity. Says Daniel: "We’re not here because we’re black, white, yellow, red, male, female, or homosexual. We’re here because we have something in common about calculus, or English, or engineering."

Karl Lewis worries that students with great potential, the kind of students who were at the core of IMPACT’s purpose, are being left behind. There are no exceptions. All engineering students must meet Pitt’s minimum admissions standards.

Expectations have changed, replies Daniel: The focus has shifted to high attainment for all students. He emphasizes that the University has to stay on course with its mission. "Pitt is on the cutting edge of developing new knowledge, new curricula, and the best possible leaders and thinkers. We should do what’s appropriate for us."

Links to external Web sites are offered for informational purposes only and the information there is not guaranteed or endorsed by the University of Pittsburgh or its affiliates.

 Top of Page Home | Pitt Home | Past Issues | Contact Us