PH.D Student Malika Grayson
—Lauren Cahoon Roberts
For Ph.D student Malika Grayson, helping others is as important as her academic work. “You can’t help yourself without helping someone else. We all need each other,” says Grayson. “You will be surprised at how much a small gesture can make a difference.”
Born to a huge extended family on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, Grayson spent much of her childhood with her grandmother. The clan matriarch set an example of constantly giving back to the community. “She was always cooking for people, no matter how many guests showed up,” says Grayson.
Grayson began her own philanthropy after winning the Miss Trinidad and Tobago competition (her talent: playing the steel-pan drum). With her winnings she organized a food drive and donated a thousand dollars each to twenty different needy households.
Grayson says she was drawn to Cornell by the warmth of the people in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering where she is pursuing her degree in mechanical engineering. She joined Professor Ephrahim Garcia’s group, studying the optimization of buildings and structures to better harness wind energy. Tragically, Garcia died in September 2014, a loss that left Grayson shaken emotionally and academically.
“It’s been really hard, but I’m pushing through—I know the last thing he would want is for his students to give up. So, I dedicate my Ph.D. to him.”
Grayson has also remained dedicated to her love of community leadership and volunteering. She is currently the co-director of the Graduate Society of Women Engineers and on the board of the National Society of Black Engineers.
She joined GradSWE to help other women in engineering feel supported. “So many times, you’re the only girl in the lab,” says Grayson, adding that while there are many helpful male colleagues and mentors in the engineering field, subtle issues can still arise for a woman in a male-dominated profession. “Many of us suffer from imposter syndrome,” she says. “When you’re surrounded by men, you may find yourself thinking you can’t do as much as them.”
Other minorities face the same issues in engineering. Having a minority faculty mentor for all new graduate students during their first year would go a long way to help them acclimate, Grayson explains. “I didn’t have that when I came in, and it took me a year to get comfortable at Cornell. Finally a female colleague convinced me to join NSBE, and I was able to get that support.”
Grayson is committed to ensuring that new students get more immediate support as they begin their graduate experience in engineering. “I think faculty support can make a big difference in how a student views their school, how they follow through with a life path, and how they choose to continue,” she says.
As NSBE’s community service chair , Grayson has made a point of reaching beyond campus, organizing volunteer work at the local Salvation Army branch in Ithaca, helping to prepare and serve meals regularly. “The people we serve are so happy to see you come in and help, and even happier when you come in again next week,” says Grayson.
She also expanded the NBSE’s involvement with Ithaca’s Southside Community Center, a non-profit aimed at empowering Ithaca’s African-American citizens. There, Grayson began a weekend program, inviting local kids to spend a month painting murals and being mentored by Cornell students in a relaxed, no-strings-attached atmosphere. She also rekindled the NSBE Jr. Program, where NBSE members mentor kids every week. Finally, Grayson conceived of and hosted an engineering day at the Beverly J. Martin elementary school, with tables of activities and demonstrations for the elementary students to investigate.
The mentorship program is going strong. Through NSBE Jr. we are able to help them prepare for finals, write a resume, prepare for the SATs,” says Grayson. She says that, despite the effort it takes to organize, recruit and manage outreach programs like this, seeing the enthusiasm and interest from those she’s helping makes it all worth it. “I just wanted to create something where the kids feel that we care...I grew up with so many people who acted as mentors, I know how important it is to have someone to look up to. I also want the community to not think that Cornellians just come for a few years and then leave without getting involved or taking an interest. It’s important to show we care enough to get involved.”