Amida Koroma had already been admitted to the A. James Clark School of Engineering when she received an invitation to submit yet another application—this time, for the 2018 LSAMP Bridge Program for Scientists and Engineers, a five-week summer experience. “Students selected for this program live, work, study, and form great bonds with one another, all while learning more about the University of Maryland campus,” read the email.

The soon-to-be high school graduate had no summer plans; she saw the experience as a fun way to earn four college credits and to jump-start her fall semester.

On introduction day, Koroma looked around the room; she couldn’t help but wonder where or if she fit in. “No one else was wearing a hijab, so I was both nervous and excited to see how they would receive me,” she recalls. “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, now a rising senior, remembers the Bridge Program as exhausting and rigorous, but also transformative. That summer, she and her peers came to understand what it takes to succeed as an engineering student at UMD: intense focus, and lots of 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. “I had no idea the program would introduce me to a whole new community that understands what it means to be a minority in STEM,” she says.

The Bridge Program has undergone several iterations since it first launched in 1984 as a one-week experience. Now a five-week program, its mission is to provide an introduction to the academic and personal support resources that are redefining the college experience for hundreds of incoming Black, Latinx, and American Indian engineering students.

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 student success.

The Beginning

Hiram Whittle

When Hiram Whittle transferred to UMD from Morgan State University in 1951, he was the first Black undergraduate student admitted to both the university and College of Engineering. Many hoped his admission would pave the way for promising students of color seeking a career in engineering, yet more than a decade passed before a Black student earned an engineering degree from Maryland. (Whittle himself would move to New York City after spending one year at Maryland; he received an honorary degree from UMD in Spring 2020.)

It took three more decades to add fewer than 60 Black engineers to UMD’s alumni ranks. In 1981, citing scant rates of underrepresented student enrollment and graduation, a group of committed engineering administrators, faculty, and staff persuaded the chancellor’s office to relocate the one-year-old CMSE from the chancellor’s office to its permanent home within the engineering school. That same year, Rosemary Parker joined the center staff part-time; the next year, she ascended to assistant director to director James Newton.

CMSE presented an opportunity, she says, to address two systemic challenges facing Maryland, as well as many other institutions of higher education: the dramatic underrepresentation of Black, Latinx, and American Indian students in engineering, and what Parker calls the “the revolving door” through which, year after year, students of color came and went, many times without a degree.

“The main challenges these students face are systemic and outside of their control. Discrimination, bias, and the feeling that one doesn’t belong all hinder academic success,” says Parker. “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 became interim director a few years later, when Newton became assistant to the dean of engineering. She was elevated to director in 1985, a position she has held since. At the time, she had big dreams for the center—but she never envisioned the metamorphic role CMSE would play in creating a more equitable playing field for thousands of students in engineering.

Fulfilling the Mission

Parker boils the center’s mission down to a few words: to advocate for and facilitate student success. “We could name it all kinds of things, but it’s really about helping students to achieve their dreams,” she says. Parker measures achievement of those efforts, in part, by progress made in enrollment, retention, and graduation rates at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

“In 1981, only 57 underrepresented minority students had earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering from Maryland over the previous 30-year period. Now, we are graduating more than that in a single academic year,” she says. Since CMSE opened its doors, more than 2,500 underrepresented minority students have walked across the commencement stage, averaging 100 students a year over the past decade. In academic year 2019–2020 alone, 72 Black and 80 Latinx students earned bachelor’s degrees from the Clark School.

CMSE’s focus on developing and graduating these students begins long before they step foot on campus; programs for elementary, middle, and high schoolers introduce promising young learners from all backgrounds to engineering and UMD. Since joining the staff in 1990, CMSE Associate Director LaWanda Kamalidiin—an ordained minister who approaches her duty to support young people through the engineering pipeline with near-evangelical zeal—says she’s “loved every minute” of guiding the center’s suite of recruitment programs. They’re so popular with families in the area that it’s not uncommon for two or three siblings to participate in different CMSE programs at one time; parents looking for safe spaces for their kids to develop STEM skills enroll their children and tell others about it.

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; they also learn about the admissions and financial aid process, attend lectures provided by faculty and staff, and meet Clark School students through various programs and activities. The program has included students from as far away as Ghana and Turkey.

When José Prado (’19 computer engineering) attended ESTEEM/SER-Quest, he was a student at the Puerto Rico Institute of Robotics, a high school that has partnered with CMSE since 2010. That summer, Prado began developing computer programming skills through research and hands-on projects. His team’s design challenge: build a robot that would detect light and nearby objects. The robot worked, and so did the program: “The experience opened me up to computer engineering and to the Clark School,” says Prado, who attended the Clark School following the experience and remained active with CMSE as an undergraduate.

The center continues nurturing and supporting students through undergraduate and graduate school and culminates with a vibrant alumni community focused on professional development and excellence. In the LSAMP Undergraduate Research Program, students dedicate 10–20 hours a week to research and are supported by a $3,000 stipend made possible through a National Science Foundation (NSF) 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,” says CMSE Program Coordinator Chelsey Lamar. “In my summer research programs, I had to seek that out myself!”

The success of efforts like the Undergraduate Research Program depends on faculty participation. 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. Kofinas signed on shortly after he joined the Clark School faculty in 1996 to participate anywhere he’s needed. Over the years, he’s attended events, including the National GEM Consortium Annual Conference and Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers National Convention, to recruit Maryland’s future engineering students; mentored CMSE students from high school to graduate school; and even helped with job and graduate school searches following graduation.

“I really enjoy this whole experience; it’s rewarding to see the students grow, understand research, get a degree, and become successful professionally,” Kofinas says. “Being a mentor to these students is incredibly rewarding, and I’ve learned from them about their experiences and challenges, too.”

Lamar also sees the symbolic value of opportunities such as the Undergraduate Research Program. “I only got into chemistry because a teacher at my predominantly white high school was Black,” she says. “I want to provide that example for other young students of color.”

Number of underrepresented minority undergraduates enrolled in Fall 2020, constituting 15% of the Clark School's undergrad student body
Goal for underrepresented minority freshman and undergraduate transfer students enrolled in the Clark School by 2024
Number of underrepresented minority students who have walked across the commencement stage since the founding of CMSE

The Hard Work

Black enrollment in engineering nearly tripled nationally from 1970–1985 and continued to climb through the 1990s. 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 cause for this decline is a matter of some debate, it underscores the urgency of CMSE’s founding mission, 40 years on.

Researchers point to disparities and deficiencies in school systems, particularly those with high-minority populations, as a key challenge. “Educational outcomes for minority children are much more a function of their unequal access to key educational resources, including skilled teachers and quality curriculum, than they are a function of race,” Linda Darling Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford, wrote in 1998. “In fact, the U.S. educational system is one of the most unequal in the industrialized world, and students routinely receive dramatically different learning opportunities based on their social status.”

It’s a significant inequity that still holds true, and it presents a barrier that many students face before they ever step foot on campus. Realizing this, CMSE aims to close the gap by providing easily accessible academic support and offering sustained mentorship through dedicated advising programs and events.

“The role of centers like CMSE is very, very important, because so many students enrolled in STEM programs are not academically prepared,” says 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 aerospace engineering) has been there. Despite graduating in the top five percent 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 says. “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.

“If you’re not the same as everybody else, you need some kind of a network or safe place where you can go and talk about things with people who are going to help you,” says Isabel Lloyd, associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and faculty partner to CMSE. “The community that the center provides is incredibly important, from pre-bachelor’s all the way to the Ph.D.”

“To achieve excellence in everything we do, we must create an inclusive, multicultural environment. These dual priorities are profoundly and immutably interconnected: we cannot have excellence without a diverse and inclusive campus. They are both journeys, because the pursuit of excellence and a supportive, respectful community require determined, cooperative, and ceaseless work.”

Darryll J. Pines
UMD President and immediate past Clark School Dean

The 'Heart' Work

“Community” is a word you hear a lot when talking to current and former students about their experiences with CMSE—another is “belonging.” 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 both cultivate, and live up to.

“The work we do is heart work. I work from my heart,” says Kamalidiin. “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 says.

Newton says that community environment was the lifeblood of the center’s plan from the very beginning. “We insisted upon a place where the students could congregate, have their meetings, and do whatever they do,” he recalls. “It is so easy to feel lost in an environment when you are the only one or one of a few. To get away from that lost feeling, we created a community of students who are all working toward the same goal and are there to support each other.”

Creating a home away from home is a fulfillment of Parker’s ambition for the center; that the center’s alumni still have a connection with CMSE and with each other, she says, is one of the hallmarks of her career. Long after graduation from Maryland, center alumni “return home” to CMSE in many ways: 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 join the Annual Student Recognition and Alumni Celebration in support, solidarity, and appreciation for the many incredible accomplishments of the CMSE community. To mentor, to listen, to help. To give back, and to help ensure the next 40 years of working towards a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive engineering future.

“We have a larger responsibility than just training engineers; we are working to build a profession that reflects society and is positioned to tackle its great challenges. That means engineering solutions built by teams that are more diverse and with a greater mix of perspectives, experiences, and ideas: that’s what CMSE helps us accomplish,” says Robert Briber, interim dean of the Clark School. “The center is as much an incubator for great engineers as it is a support system for students, and we’re very proud to have it here at Maryland.”

The Path Forward

The Path Forward aims to amplify the Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering’s impact, create a sustainable future for the center, and enhance its support of thousands of students and alumni.

Visit The Path Forward: The Campaign for CMSE to learn more about how your charitable donation can make a significant difference in the future of CMSE.

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Posed group of students who participated in a summer camp

Your gift can help us fund core programs for underrepresented minority K–12, undergraduate, and graduate students, build a base of annual support so we can meet students’ ever-changing needs, and create an endowment to sustain our mission.