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Celebrating 40 Years of ‘Heart’ Work

How the Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering Has Improved the Odds for Thousands of Students

By Melba Newsome and Melissa Andreychek

Illustration of diverse group of engineering students

Illustration by D’Ara Nazaryan

In 1981, when the Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering was founded at UMD, only 57 underrepresented minority students had earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering from Maryland over the previous 30 years. In comparison, 72 Black and 80 Latinx students earned bachelor’s degrees from the Clark School in 2019–20.

Amida Koroma looked around the room on the first day of her summer bridge program at the University of Maryland, and wondered where or if she fit in.

She was one of about 25 students from underrepresented backgrounds admitted to the A. James Clark School of Engineering and invited to spend five weeks on campus, earn four college credits, and learn about Maryland life—and the only student, Koroma noticed, who was wearing a hijab.

“I was both nervous and excited to see how they would receive me,” she recalled. “But they all looked like me in terms of race, and they’d never done this before either, so we were all in the same boat together.”

Koroma ’22 remembers the LSAMP Bridge Program for Scientists and Engineers as exhausting and rigorous, but also transformative. She and her peers learned what it takes to succeed as an engineering student at UMD: intense focus and hard work. While they grumbled among themselves about the early mornings with math tutors and late-night homework sessions, the students also formed a community of support that Koroma says endures three years later. 

The Bridge Program has redefined the college experience for hundreds of incoming Black, Latinx and American Indian engineering students since 1984, and it’s just one of many ways the Clark School’s Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering (CMSE) delivers on a promise of ensuring Terps’ success.

The Beginning
Hiram Whittle transferred to UMD from Morgan State University in 1951 to become the first Black undergraduate student admitted to both the university and College of Engineering. Yet more than a decade passed before a Black student earned an engineering degree from Maryland. (Whittle left for New York City after spending one year at Maryland; he received an honorary degree from UMD in Spring 2020.)

In 1981, citing scant rates of underrepresented student enrollment and graduation, a group of engineering administrators, faculty and staff persuaded the chancellor’s office to relocate an existing program from the chancellor’s office to its permanent home within the engineering school. 

Rosemary Parker, who joined the center staff part-time that year, recalled that CMSE presented an opportunity to address two systemic challenges facing Maryland as well as many other institutions of higher education: dramatic underrepresentation of Black, Latinx and American Indian students in engineering, and what Parker called the “the revolving door” of students of color arriving and leaving, too often without degrees.

“Discrimination, bias and the feeling that one doesn’t belong all hinder academic success,” she said. “The center was built to connect, support and guide all students, regardless of the color of their skin or background, through their education and careers.”

Parker was elevated to director in 1985, a position she has held since. She measures the center’s achievement in part by progress in enrollment, retention and graduation rates.

In 1981, only 57 underrepresented minority students had earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering from Maryland over the previous 30 years. Now, it graduates more than that in a single year. Since CMSE opened, more than 2,500 underrepresented minority students have walked across the engineering commencement stage, averaging 100 a year over the past decade. 

Fulfilling the Mission
CMSE’s focus on developing and graduating students begins long before they step foot on campus; programs for elementary, middle and high schoolers introduce young learners from all backgrounds to engineering and UMD. 

Graphic: 638 underrepresented minority undergraduates enrolled in Fall 2020, totaling 15% of the undergrad student body. 20% goal for freshmen and undergrad transfer students from underrepresented minority groups 2024, up from 15% in Fall 2020. 2,500+ underrepresented minority students who have graduated since CMSE's foundingOne of them, ESTEEM/SER-Quest, is an intensive, four-week experience for rising high school seniors. Students team up with a graduate student or faculty member on summer research, learn about the admissions and financial aid process, attend lectures provided by faculty and staff, and meet Clark School students. 

José Prado ’19 attended ESTEEM/SER-Quest while a student at the Puerto Rico Institute of Robotics, a high school that has partnered with CMSE since 2010. That summer, he and peers built a robot that would detect light and nearby objects. “The experience opened me up to computer engineering and to the Clark School,” said Prado.

In the LSAMP Undergraduate Research Program, students dedicate 10 to 20 hours a week to research and are supported by a $3,000 stipend made possible through a National Science Foundation grant. “Our program offers a suite of graduate school preparation support, including GRE workshops and workshops designed to facilitate the improvement of research skills and professional development,” said CMSE Program Coordinator Chelsey Lamar. 

Peter Kofinas, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and former Clark School equity and diversity officer, is one of Parker’s go-to professors when she needs a mentor or advisor. Over the years, he’s helped recruit Maryland’s future engineering students; mentored CMSE students from high school to graduate school; and even assisted with job and graduate school searches.

“It’s rewarding to see the students grow, understand research, get a degree and become successful professionally,” Kofinas said. “Being a mentor to these students is incredibly rewarding, and I’ve learned from them about their experiences and challenges, too.”

The Hard Work
According to an analysis of four decades of data conducted by Undark, STEM-field bachelor’s degrees awarded to Black students peaked in the early 2000s, and have been falling ever since. While the causes of this decline—starting with disparities in K-12 school systems—are a matter of debate, it underscores the urgency of CMSE’s mission.

“The role of centers like CMSE is very, very important, because so many students enrolled in STEM programs are not academically prepared,” said former director James Newton. “I once had a student who wanted to be an engineer. When I explained the curriculum, he looked at me and said, ‘You mean I have to take math?’”

Jarred Alexander Young ’09, M.S. ’13, Ph.D. ’17 has been there. Despite graduating in the top 5% from his high school, he entered Maryland without a firm grounding in math. “I had been taking algebra I while my friends, who went to the magnet high school, were taking algebra II, trigonometry and pre-calculus,” he said. “By the time I got to UMD, I was already two steps behind in math.”

Young struggled, had to repeat classes and took five years to graduate—then went on to thrive in his graduate work, earning a doctorate and later joining the Clark School faculty as a Keystone Lecturer. He believes, though, that his undergraduate experience could have been different had he connected with CMSE before his freshman year.

The ‘Heart’ Work
For many, the center reassures them that the Clark School is where they belong. It’s a reputation that Parker and the entire center staff have worked hard to cultivate and live up to.

CMSE Associate Director LaWanda Kamalidiin, an ordained minister who joined the staff in 1990, approaches her duty to support young people through the engineering pipeline with near-evangelical zeal.

“The work we do is heart work. I work from my heart,” she said. “When you care about these students, they know it. They feel it.”

Koroma agrees. “It all begins with how you feel. A lot of people develop imposter syndrome and wonder whether they belong—thanks to CMSE, I have a place where I know I belong,” she said.

Creating a home away from home is a fulfillment of Parker’s ambition for the center; that the center’s alums still have a connection with CMSE and with each other, she said, is one of the hallmarks of her career. Long after graduation from Maryland, center alumni “return home” to CMSE in many ways: for example, to share their professional experiences at the Winter Leadership Retreat and with student organizations including the Black Engineers Society and Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers

“To achieve excellence in everything we do, we must create an inclusive, multicultural environment,” said Darryll J. Pines, UMD president and immediate past Clark School dean. “They are both journeys, because the pursuit of excellence and a supportive, respectful community require determined, cooperative and ceaseless work.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.