my first semester in college, the calculus professor asked, “Who are the math
majors in this class?” I proudly raised my hand, only to realize that mine was
the only one raised. Who were these 30 other students? What were their majors?
Could they be taking calculus as an elective? No, right? Why do they seem
confident, and who is helping them decide which paths to take?
This pivotal moment in undergraduate life led to my career in engineering. It was where I realized the significance of having mentors, advisors, and sponsors as I pursued my goals. And it helped shape my eagerness to extend the mantle of knowledge, experience, and support to others that I yearned for in that moment.
My journey began with a great K-12 education on the isle of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. My parents, only one of whom had completed high school, and with a GED, no less, valued my “Perfect Attendance Certificate” as much or even more than my “straight A” report card. So, many decades later, I can still hear my mother’s mantra—“Education is the key to a better life, and you have to be there to learn.” There was no skipping school. Although never designated as such, she clearly was my first mentor in her own unique way.
When the time came to apply to college, her loving but untutored counsel came in the form of moral support. I navigated the process on my own with the ‘I-know-it-all’ confidence of an 18-year-old in the ‘70s. There was no Google or internet or even access to college catalogues.
As naïve as this will sound, I applied to one school—Howard University. I chose Howard, not because I had done my due diligence and knew the legacy of this great institution, but because most people with prosperous lives on the island (e.g., teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians) were Howard graduates. Obviously, Howard was it for me!
At Howard, I would major in mathematics since that subject came easy to me and I saw a clear career path as a math teacher. I mean, what else could one do with a math degree—so I thought at the time. Concerns about the odds of being admitted to Howard or how I would pay my tuition never occurred to me. Fortunately, one day that magical missive came—a letter from Howard University with a congratulations on my admission AND financial aid. Wow! I got in! And with no idea of what awaited me, I left my island home with plans to return as a math teacher. I was on my way!
Little did I know that what awaited me was the challenging prospect of navigating a maze of opportunities without the insight and guidance of anyone who had done it before. I had come to realize that there was so much I did not know. Who knew that there were other career options in the ‘70s beyond being a math teacher, especially for someone who was good at mathematics? I didn’t and had no one to tell me.
Now, back to my calculus class, where I found out that I was the lone math major among a class of engineering majors. Interesting, I thought. But truth be told, I had no idea what an engineer did. Nonetheless, for no well-thought-out reason, I decided I, too, would be an engineer, since it appeared math was important in engineering. Then, in keeping with my original plan to be an educator, I would become an engineering professor. I completed the forms to switch my major to engineering and had to make another uninformed decision—what field of engineering was right for me? I chose civil engineering because I vaguely remembered having heard something about it.
Today, with a doctoral degree from the University of California, Berkeley, I have been a civil engineering professor for almost 40 years. My choice to attend Berkeley after earning degrees from Howard and George Washington University was an informed decision as Berkeley has the top nationally ranked program in civil engineering. I wanted to be with the best and learn from the best. So, in accordance with my mother’s guidance, I had to be there to learn. And so, I did. I am proud that I am the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in civil engineering from Berkeley.
After graduation and with major institutions eagerly pursing Berkeley Ph.D. graduates with promises of high salaries and start-up packages, I chose a path driven by my passion to return to my alma mater, Howard University. I would use my knowledge and training to enhance the preparation of the next generation of engineers. Through research, I would work to better understand and implement strategies to broaden the participation of underrepresented minorities and women in engineering, all while developing my technical engineering research portfolio.
The surprise of realizing that most of my academically talented undergraduates were foregoing graduate school for immediate jobs in industry led to one of my first engineering education research projects. The research question was simply, why? I found that students gained industry experience during their summer internships, but they had no experience with or understanding of the benefits and rewards of graduate education and research. I strategically planned and acquired funding to establish an undergraduate STEM research program. I coached, mentored, and guided students and often-hesitant faculty researchers through the early stages of the researcher/undergraduate mentee relationship. Today, undergraduate research opportunities are the norm in all our STEM research laboratories. And students who have gained both internship and research experiences can now make informed decisions about their post-baccalaureate careers.
Another opportunity for me to explore ways to broaden the participation of underrepresented minorities and women in engineering arose in response to a tagline used by Howard University—Leadership for America and the Global Community. Howard was deeply involved in preparing global leaders through several study abroad programs. These programs did not support a strictly structured engineering curriculum and thus did not attract engineering students. In addition, the number of engineering students, specifically minority students, who have had such experiences was small.
considered ways to better prepare our students to be globally engaged and aware.
Then, I led the design and implementation of the STEM Global Undergraduate
Research Initiative in collaboration with 13 global institutions in developing
countries and emerging markets in Africa, Eastern Europe, Mexico, Chile, and
Southeast Asia. The study examined the impact of a research-abroad experience
on STEM students. Teams of Howard STEM students, 80% of whom were female, would
spend four weeks in the summer immersed in research and the culture of their
host international institution. The success of this program goes beyond the
increase in the numbers of minorities and women engineers with global
experiences. Its signature benefits are the ongoing relationships formed among
the students and their research mentors, the number of students who have joined
the Peace Corps or pursued diplomatic careers, and, most importantly, the scores
who have pursued graduate education and research careers.
I started my career with a hope, a prayer, and one maternal mentor in my corner. I was propelled by many uninformed decisions and not much else. Good fortune and belief in myself have taken me to a place where I have earned the rank of full professor, served as a department chair and interim dean, and stood in the Oval Office to receive a Presidential Award from President Barack Obama. This summer, I will become Chair-elect of the ABET Engineering Accreditation Commission. I am proud to have received other recognitions for being the first woman to accomplish this or the first African American to accomplish that. But my goal is to push the door open for many to follow. As I climb, I continue to lift, I continue to mentor, coach, and guide my students over and around obstacles that I faced in my career path. A congratulatory note I received from one of my former students, who has since earned a doctoral degree, assures me that it was all worth it.
It reads: “Dr. Fleming: Thank you for returning to Howard and showing us that we could succeed, too. We knew you could have taught at any university in the world, but again, you chose to return to Howard and that made us feel special.”