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Rod Watson: What color is success? For these students, it looks like them

Rod Watson

When high school student Karl English showed up for his first Success Looks Like Me session, organizers recall a shy kid who spent most of the time looking down at his shoes.

He left as a leader of the program  and is now a freshman on scholarship at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he’s exploring subjects like human-centered computing as he leans toward a career in business and technology. As an African-American, he would be one of the few in that kind of tech field.

But that’s the kind of confidence you acquire and the kind of goals you set after hobnobbing with General Motors executives and engineers at auto shows in Detroit, New York City and Toronto as part of such a program.

"It helped expose me to a lot of different places and areas I’d never experienced before," the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts graduate said by phone. "It showed me more things out there that I can be involved in."

The lack of such exposure, not a lack of ability, is one reason the numbers of minorities and females entering some of the STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – fields has actually declined rather than grown.

Data from Change the Equation, a national coalition of corporations promoting STEM literacy, shows that the percentage of African-Americans earning a bachelor’s degree or higher in engineering has actually dropped since 2005, to only 5.6 percent in 2015. Similarly, "women have seen no improvement in STEM since 2001," constituting 13 percent of the engineering workforce, 26 percent of the computing workforce and 9 percent of the advanced manufacturing workforce in 2016. Those percentages are the same or lower than 15 years earlier.

Success Looks Like Me aims to change that by exposing kids of color to – as the name implies – successful adults who look like them, including engineers, scientists and executives in the STEM fields. The goal is to show them what is possible for them, not just for other students.

Founded by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo’s Communities of Giving Legacies Initiative – and with a big boost from GM’s Tonawanda Engine plant and Jackson Parker Communications – it takes kids on field trips like the auto shows where they also go behind the scenes and visit corporate offices.

It also hosts local events like Saturday’s half-day session at the University at Buffalo’s Educational Opportunity Center, where representatives from companies like BAK USA, DuPont, GM and Roswell Park Cancer Institute met individually with about 30 kids in a form of "speed dating" before the students engaged in a "visioning" exercise to plan their futures.

Afterward, the students described being inspired "just to see other black people in powerful positions" and by knowing that "I can be like them and accomplish things."

"I learned a lot about myself and the people around me and how to better myself, how to kind of curate my own future," said Nicholas Baxter, a junior at Williamsville South High School.

"Sometimes, until you show a child, they can’t envision what they can be," said Nina Heard, Tonawanda Engine’s manager of community relations.

Sometimes, neither can a lot of other people including, too often, their teachers.

In addition to English at RIT, the program now has students at Daemen, Canisius, Houghton, D’Youville, Erie Community, SUNY Fredonia and SUNY Buffalo State colleges.

They may not look like the majority of their classmates. But that’s how you change the face of success.

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