The sophomore engineering student was exhausted and overwhelmed. At 3 that morning, when she finally left Benedum Hall after a long study session, her brain felt scrambled and her emotions seemed out of control. She always knew that earning a degree in mechanical engineering would be hard, but now she worried she was incapable of keeping up with the rigorous workload.
In tears, she called her parents in eastern Pennsylvania. Just come home, her father said. The idea was tempting, but she had worked so hard to get to Pitt. She was the first in her family to attend college; could she really give up?
So, SaLisa Berrien went to someone she knew would help. In the office of Associate Professor of Engineering Karl Lewis, the young woman poured out her heart. Lewis listened, then he gave Berrien a talk that she says transformed her outlook.
“He said, ‘what you want is achievable,’” she recalls. “He talked me through what I needed to do and told me that everyone goes through these pressures, but that it is how you deal with them that matters most. It seemed like he believed in me more than I believed in myself.”
Today, Berrien (ENGR ’91) is a mechanical engineer and the founder and CEO of a Florida-based energy technology company. But, she says, had she not received Lewis’s “wrap-around support services” of academic and emotional support, she may not have graduated college.
Berrien is just one of hundreds of Pitt students who were provided vital support by the professor and his brainchild, the Pitt Engineering IMPACT Program. Begun by Lewis in 1969, the mentoring and scholarship program helped empower minority engineering scholars, giving them the tools needed to thrive in a tough academic environment.
The program began each summer with an intense six-week workshop to help incoming freshmen recipients acclimate to life at the University. Throughout the year, Lewis nurtured an environment of support, pushing students to be their best and to help each other. The importance of a supportive community wasn’t just a core element of IMPACT, but a lesson Lewis learned early on.
As a young scholar in the 1950s, he often faced racial discrimination and isolation. After earning a degree from Howard University, he was accepted to Purdue University’s engineering master’s program, but he was unable to obtain housing near campus.
“I would try to rent a room and they would tell me ‘there is nothing for you here,’” Lewis says.
He eventually found a place far from school, but the commute made it hard to meet with classmates.
“All the graduate engineering students would get together, study, and try to understand what the professors were saying,” he recalls. “That is where the real learning happened.”
When a professor found him a room nearby, Lewis was finally able to benefit from the scholarly community. He never forgot the value of academic support, or the pain of unjust limitations.
Lewis went on to earn a PhD and, in 1966, became a professor at Pitt in what is now known as the Swanson School of Engineering. That’s when he decided to help lift up future generations of engineers by creating IMPACT. With help from friends and colleagues, he found state funding to launch the innovative program and kept it funded through the decades.
The IMPACT program was later renamed Pitt EXCEL. Like IMPACT, it offers support to students from under-represented groups and has added peer mentoring, career and graduate school counseling, and other support services. Though Lewis retired in 2001, he remains connected to the program and to many of its alumni, who still value the influence the accomplished professor had on their lives and careers.
In 2004, with the support of five fellow engineering alumni, Berrien raised $50,000 to establish the Karl H. Lewis Engineering IMPACT Alumni Endowed Fund to provide further support to Black engineering students. With subsequent donations from other alumni and Lewis himself, the fund has grown to more than $150,000.
Each year at Pitt’s Homecoming, some of the program’s alumni gather in Pittsburgh to meet the newest Lewis scholars and to enjoy the supportive community that still flourishes years after Lewis first built it.
“Dr. Lewis is a selfless visionary,” Berrien says. “He made the difference for hundreds of African American engineering students like me.”
“Scholarships help support our students and are an important part of what has made the University of Pittsburgh the successful and diverse institution it is today.” —Chancellor Patrick Gallagher
Robert W. Amore (ENGR ’53), his daughter Pam Pillmore, and her husband Eric Pillmore have pledged $150,000 to the Swanson School of Engineering to create the Antonio, Vincent, and Robert Amore Endowed Scholarship in Civil and Environmental Engineering. The fund recognizes Robert’s brother Vincent (ENGR ’51) and father, Antonio. “I’m extremely grateful for my Pitt engineering education,” Robert said. “This is our family’s way of acknowledging that while honoring the memories of my father and brother.”
Tom and Bonnie VanKirk established the Thomas L. and Bonnie W. VanKirk Endowed Scholarship in the School of Social Work with a $250,000 gift. Their contribution will benefit master’s degree students pursuing a certificate in integrated health care and reflects the couple’s belief that social workers can address societal challenges and strengthen communities. They previously created the VanKirk Career Center Endowment in the School of Social Work.
Viola Gaydos Halpin (NURS ’52) and John A. Halpin made a $5 contribution to Pitt in 1972—an initial gift they built upon for the next 45 years. Following the couple’s deaths earlier this year, their estate made a $151,000 donation to the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing. From their first gift to their last, the family’s generosity has made a lasting difference.
Opening image: Karl Lewis
This article appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Pitt Magazine.
Editor's Note: Karl Lewis passed away on March 5, 2019. To read his obituary, click here.