CSU Voices and Views

Engineering a Path to Success

By President James M. Rosser
California State University, Los Angeles

Willie Harris, electrical engineering major at Cal State L.A.

Willie Harris, electrical engineering major at Cal State L.A.

Reflecting on one of Super Sunday’s goals of encouraging African American parents or guardians to be active partners in their children’s education, I wondered: how do Cal State L.A. students who had less support when they were young differ from those who were nurtured? Were their experiences and involvement on campus that different? I was also curious about their perceptions as African Americans of the workforce; does a student’s perspective differ from someone who has already launched his or her professional career? 

Recently, we connected with two African American engineers to gauge the similarities: Willie Harris, who is currently working toward his bachelor’s degree here at CSULA in electrical engineering, and alumnus Ricson Chude, who works as a mechanical engineer in Strategic Planning and Technical Services at Southern California Edison.

Unlike Ricson, whose parents were involved in guiding him toward engineering, Willie had to be a self-starter—he literally directed his own educational path early on. It turns out, beyond those differences, their paths strikingly converge.

Willie has a motto he lives by, that “hard work pays off.” Self-driven, he works hard at everything he does because he “never knows what’s going to happen.”

“I was a pretty good student as a child. I joined in the MESA program in elementary school. In the 10th grade, I wanted to choose a major that was challenging. I decided on electrical engineering after I went to the Staples Center for E-Week [National Engineers Week]. I attended a workshop facilitated by Raytheon and was part of a group there that put together a breadboard [circuit board].”  

In contrast, Ricson explained that his parents monitored the amount of television he watched to ensure he completed his homework, which his father often checked. His father also encouraged him to read ahead before class, and attended teacher conferences to learn about his progress at school.

Ricson also credits his innate abilities as having been a factor in his college and career choices.

“Knowing that I had an inclination for math and science played a major role in my degree choice. I discovered my math abilities in middle school and was encouraged by my parents to pursue the engineering career path,” he explained. “High school students should definitely seek advice from counselors and their parents.”

Ricson points out that an “inclination” is not always enough to determine the academic road best traveled. He said that while some college students might naturally excel in a subject, it’s essential that the interest is there, no matter what direction parents may prefer. “College is a time-consuming, often fatiguing journey. If students are not entirely committed, any minor roadblock will deter them from finishing their degree.”

On-campus involvement played an important role for both Willie and Ricson. They have been involved with academic and engineering groups, including the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and each has served as a student representative for CSULA’s College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology.

Finally, we asked Willie, who has worked part-time while in college for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and for San Diego Gas and Electric, what is his perception of diversity in engineering, and of industry?

Willie says that there is a “lack of African American and women engineers,” and that those in the field “don’t hold very high positions.” He also noted that there are a limited number of African American students pursuing engineering degrees, particularly at the graduate level.

Ricson’s perception, however, is that the representation in the workforce adds up for the most part. Having been a member of the NSBE for the past seven years, he has come across many African American professionals, and believes there might be some misconceptions.

“It is often reported that there are very few [African American engineers], yet people fail to understand that African Americans make up a minority in our population. Hence, it’s only normal that compared to the majority, the numbers seem low.”

Two ambitious, well-educated African American engineers clearly do not provide a comprehensive test sample of the perceptions of African Americans in regards to the importance of parental support in early college preparation. However, they do offer an interesting glimpse at the difference between one who will soon begin his career, and one who looks back with experience.

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