Keeping Ezra's Promise: Fostering a College for Any Person

By David Nutt

The challenges faced by incoming freshman have always been an essential part of the college experience. Coping with homesickness. Making new friends. Adjusting to an exciting new environment and level of academic rigor.

For Ansumana Bangura ’20, who was born to two African parents from Sierra Leon and grew up in a close-knit traditional African community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, his first day of class was especially daunting.

“I’m not going to lie. Going into my first lecture, it was like 400, 500 people, and very few of them looked like me,” Bangura said. “That’s very intimidating.”

Bangura’s experience will be familiar to most minority students pursuing engineering degrees across the country. According to a 2015 report by the National Science Foundation, three racial and ethnic groups—blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaska Natives—as well as women and people with disabilities, are disproportionately underrepresented in science and engineering, with underrepresented minorities accounting for only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in those fields in 2014. That percentage dropped to 14 and 8 percent for masters and doctorate degrees, respectively. And while women typically earn 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, they only accounted for 19.8 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering fields, the report showed.

These figures should not be surprising to anyone who has been actively involved with trying to bring greater diversity to engineering education.

Jami P. Joyner“Looking at the historic picture, women and racial monitories were structurally excluded from opportunities in STEM,” said Jami P. Joyner, the director of Diversity Programs in Engineering (DPE). “Then you had a time where systemic changes were implemented, whether that was through leadership at various institutions, through legislation, affirmative action type policies or progressive thinking. Whatever the catalyst, I think society has benefited and advanced from inclusion. There was, and still is, a large untapped population of minorities and women with a wealth of talent. We must diligently work to ensure that engineering, STEM education and career pathways are accessible to them.”

Since its founding in 2004, Joyner’s office has worked closely with Cornell Engineering’s admissions office to recruit underrepresented minority students and women. Among the many resources that DPE offers are diversity awards, scholarships, fellowships, and professional and leadership development opportunities. The admissions office puts a special emphasis on reaching these priority students through marketing materials that demystify STEM fields and make Cornell Engineering seem accessible to anyone who has the math and science skills — and the creativity — to succeed, according to Scott Campbell, director of admissions for Cornell Engineering.

“We’re trying to communicate with a variety of students and get them to think very seriously about Cornell Engineering and what they might do here,” Campbell said.

These efforts have helped push Cornell Engineering far ahead of its peer institutions in terms of diversity. In the last 10 years, the number of undergraduate women in the college has increased from 28 percent to 48 percent, which is more than twice the national average of 20 percent, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. And the percentage of women in the college’s first-year engineering class is even higher, at 51 percent. Over the same period, Cornell Engineering has more than doubled the number of underrepresented minority students from 7 percent to over 19 percent.

Progress within individual departments throughout Cornell Engineering still varies, with noticeable gains in biomedical engineering, computer science and mechanical engineering, Joyner and Campbell said. While the college has seen a gradual increase in Asian and Hispanic students, the percentage of enrolled African-American students—rising to 5.6 percent from 3.8 percent the previous year—has been harder to budge. The numerous barriers for underrepresented minority students and women interested in engineering are persistent and often systemic, according to Campbell.

“They’re false barriers in the sense that they often play on stereotypes and biases,” Campbell said. “We hear from female engineers in our applicant pool every year: ‘I was the only woman on my high school robotics team and I was told repeatedly I can’t do this, I can’t do this. But through the strength of my will and determination I did it.’ And that should never happen. It should always be if you’re really good at this and you’re interested in this, of course we’re going to welcome you and help you perform and get the skills you need and are interested in developing. Whether they’re an underrepresented minority student or a woman interested in engineering, they bang up against these barriers repeatedly.”

Another problem Campbell often sees is students being dissuaded from pursuing math and science at an early age.

“This has never been thoroughly explained to me”

Mechanical engineering major Laura Vasquez-Bolanos ’19 was born in Colombia to a single mother and moved to Leesburg, Virginia, when she was still a child. During high school, Vasquez-Bolanos decided she wanted to pursue a premed track in college and she took advanced placement courses in biology and chemistry to shore up her science skills. It wasn’t until she attended a high school visitation day at the University of Virginia that she understood the full range of fields contained within engineering, which included her own interest in biomechanics and orthopedic research.

“A large portion of women don’t think about engineering, because I clearly didn’t,” Vasquez-Bolanos said. “As they were describing all the different types of engineering, I realized that exactly what I wanted to do in the medical field I could do as an engineer. It was that moment where I thought, ‘Wow, this has never been thoroughly explained to me.’ You don’t casually meet an engineer in your daily life so I just had no idea. When I thought about an engineer back then, I thought of a civil engineer and I didn’t want to do that.”

The summer before her junior year, Vasquez-Bolanos attended Cornell’s Catalyst Academy, which allows high school students, with an emphasis on underrepresented minorities and women, to explore their burgeoning interest in engineering. After being accepted into Cornell Engineering, she returned to campus for six weeks to participate in the Pre-Freshman Summer Program. But when Vasquez-Bolanos officially started her fall semester, she immediately hit a wall. As a high school student initially interested in premed, she had skipped AP physics. Now she was struggling with the fundamentals that many of her peers had already mastered.

“I knew this is literally my entire major, if I’m not good at this, I can’t be in my major, right?” Vasquez-Bolanos said. “So I worked my butt off. I got extra help, tutoring. I ended up getting an A in the class thanks to all my hard work. But I thought about all my peers who had already taken AP physics and were like ‘That class is a breeze.’ But I had to make up for not taking it. Thankfully there’s a lot of resources for physics here.”

Vasquez-Bolanos credits DPE efforts like the Ryan Scholars Program, which offers a number of comprehensive support mechanisms to assist engineering students who face hurdles due to their backgrounds.

As the first member of her family to attend college, and therefore considered an at-risk student, Vasquez-Bolanos said the program completely changed her experience of Cornell.

“That’s huge when you’re going to school as a first-gen and knowing that no one has done this in your family before, so your parents can’t be like ‘Oh yeah, you know, it’s okay, kid,’” Vasquez-Bolanos said.

And, like many students, she remains concerned about rising tuition costs, which can often have a greater impact on minority, low-income and even middle-class students.

“Despite all the stress and challenges I’ve faced at Cornell, at the end of the day I love it with all my heart,” Vasquez-Bolanos said. “And I know if there comes a moment where I don’t believe in myself, I can talk to people and regain that confidence.”

Any person, any study

The lack of a supportive community, particularly the presence of role models, often hinders underrepresented minorities and women, according to Susan Daniel, associate professor and director of graduate studies for the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“One of the critical things is reaching out and helping people understand what opportunities are here and giving them the confidence that ‘Hey, you can do this too,’” Daniel said. “It doesn’t need to be a closed club. We’re all invited. Especially a place like Cornell, where it is any person, any study.”

One of the ways the Smith School has pushed to be more inclusive is by bringing in more women to speak in seminar series; last year the gender ratio reached an even fifty-fifty split. Daniel acknowledged that a persistent challenge remains the slow pace of increasing faculty diversity, given the lengthy hiring process that is involved. In response to this, the school has created a plan to bring visiting scholars who are underrepresented minorities to campus so they can conduct sponsored research and interact with students during the summer.

The visiting scholars program will be financed with funds from a $50 million gift the school received in January 2016 from Robert F. Smith ’85, founder, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners, along with the foundation of which he is a founding director. A portion of Smith’s gift was specifically earmarked for scholarship and fellowship support for African-American and female students. The gift also established the Robert Frederick Smith Tech Scholars Program, in which select high school seniors with financial need—particularly African-American and female students —are invited to earn an undergraduate degree at Cornell Engineering, followed by a one-year professional master’s degree at Cornell Tech.

During an October 2016 dedication ceremony for the renamed Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Smith explained how, as a high school junior, he was first brought to Cornell’s campus through a minority introduction to engineering program.

“When I got here it was a revelation,” Smith said. “Ezra’s promise ‘to found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.’ This place is blind to gender, to race, to class, to creed. Because most places I visited at that time were not.”

While Smith’s gift is an incredible boon for the school, it is Smith’s generosity and his willingness to give back that may have the most lasting impact.

“There aren’t many billionaires on the planet. And for students to see an African-American billionaire who has personally engaged with them, coupled with demonstrating care and so much support for current and future Cornell students, is remarkable,” Joyner said. “I have had many students who said, ‘Some way, somehow, emulating his success is my goal. That’s not only an inspiration, that’s an aspiration for me.’”

Opportunities for everyone

Ansumana Bangura did not have to look very far for inspiration. From an early age, he had a natural affinity for science and engineering. Growing up in Brooklyn, he was able to watch his father, now an environmental health and safety officer, earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science-related fields. Bangura also had the support of his teachers, who recognized his early aptitude in advanced placement classes throughout middle school and high school. By ninth grade, he knew he wanted to seek a career involving sustainability and developing renewal energy systems, and he approached his studies with a singular focus.

“STEM programs tend to be more rigorous than liberal arts programs so when a lot of minorities don’t have opportunities prior to college to check out STEM and see whether or not it’s really for them, they go in sort of blind and get blindsided by what they didn’t expect it to be,” Bangura said. “But I had a lot of time and opportunities to really cement my love for science, and support from faculty at my high school and my family.”

Bangura knew he wanted to attend a top engineering school that would challenge him academically. But when he began touring campuses like Georgia Tech and Carnegie Mellon, he found that he couldn’t envision himself there. Then he visited Cornell through the diversity hosting program. After staying on campus for a couple of days, sitting in on classes and meeting other students, he felt confident that he belonged at Cornell. Diversity hosting and the Pre-Freshman Summer Program enabled him to get a head-start on building a strong network of peers and friends that he could lean on for personal and academic support. And that network continued to grow as fall semester started.

“Within a week of being up here, I met the Cornell National Society of Black Engineers chapter, so I met 20 other upperclassmen who were black. Just seeing those familiar faces made me more comfortable,” Bangura said. “They could tell me about their experiences being the only black person in their discussion, about being one of only three black people in an entire class.”

Bangura, who is also a Ryan scholar, found a wellspring of support in the DPE office as well.

“As a person in college you’re told nobody is going to clean up after you, nobody is going to be chasing you to make sure you get your work done. It’s almost as if people at college don’t care. That’s the stereotype you’re given,” he said. “But to have that network of people in the DPE office who truly cared—they knew my name, knew my face, knew what college I was in, knew who I was friends with—it just made me feel a lot more at home. And then they went the extra mile to make sure I was included in activities and in the community.”

It was through the DPE office that Bangura found an opportunity to work as a computer aid on nano-size composite experiments conducted by Alan Taylor Zehnder, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor.

“He was looking out for a research opportunity for a sophomore and a freshman, and he went straight to the Diversity Programs in Engineering office and that eventually led to me getting the research opportunity,” said Bangura, who plans to major in mechanical engineering. “I’d never had lab experience and I’ve always wanted that. So it was the fulfillment of a mini dream of mine. That just shows you there are professors and faculty members that care and they will make sure that opportunities are available for everyone. Which, again, like everything else, just made me feel even more comfortable and at home on campus.”

Enlighten and sensitize

As Cornell Engineering continues to seek ways of attracting underrepresented minority students and women and supporting them as a community, the college’s leadership is also focusing on ensuring that all environments on campus are inclusive—particularly the classroom—so that students and faculty members are more attuned to the needs of people from diverse backgrounds, as well as the need for diversity itself, according to Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering.

“It’s not just numbers. It’s getting to a place where everyone is really appreciating the fact that there are people who are different than them,” Collins said. “The reality is when you bring people together who are all different, it has the potential to be a much more productive environment because of the conflicts and collisions and differences of opinions and viewpoints. It’s a tougher environment to manage, but it’s a higher-performing environment. So what we want to produce is that tougher, higher-performing environment in such a way that not only are people in it, but they’re appreciating it. They actually realize, yeah, this is the way it needs to be, in order to be great.”

Collins, who in 2010 became the first African-American dean at Cornell, is particularly excited about a new university-wide effort involving the Cornell Interactive Theatre Ensemble. The group is visiting with faculty across Cornell and performing scenarios that demonstrate how unintended biases and behaviors might be negatively affecting their classroom environment. The performances are followed by a Q&A session between the audience and the actors, who are still in character, and a facilitated discussion. It is forward-thinking initiatives like this that have made Cornell a real leader in diversity efforts, Collins said.

But that doesn’t mean the work is anywhere near done.

“It’s not a problem that we’ll declare as completely solved,” Collins said. “It’s not like you’re here trying to put a person on the moon. The nature of this problem is you’re really trying to constantly enlighten and sensitize. There’s always going to be disagreement and there’s always going to be challenging moments. This is just human nature. It’s true for everybody. It’s not just true for underrepresented groups.”

Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

“When I got here it was a revelation,” Smith said. “Ezra’s promise ‘to found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.’ This place is blind to gender, to race, to class, to creed. Because most places I visited at that time were not.”