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Black History Month: Reflections from U of T Engineering

Story by Liz Do

In celebration of Black History Month, U of T Engineering — in collaboration with the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) U of T Chapter and Mikhail Burke, Inclusion & Transition Advisor — invited members of our community who identify as Black to reflect on their experiences, share advice for their peers or voice changes they’d like to see.

The responses illuminate their diverse range of lived experiences and an ongoing need for systemic change.

Have you experienced obstacles with being a Black person in engineering or engineering educational spaces? How have you overcome them?

Mohamed Hirole
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Mohamed Hirole, Year 3 ElecE

"In my journey to U of T Engineering, I faced obstacles of not having the prior knowledge or access to STEM educational tools that many of my peers did. It's uncommon for people in my community to pursue STEM studies or even attend STEM camps during their younger years.

It was daunting to come into an atmosphere where this seemed the norm and one that lacked a Black community. I definitely struggled with finding my place amongst the U of T community. But it is when you are at your lowest point, that you are open to the greatest change.

By taking initiative and joining student groups like the University of Toronto Aerospace Team (UTAT) & NSBE, I was able to learn what it means to work in teams and build comradery along the way. Experiences and leadership roles in both clubs like these opened my eyes to the talents and passion students bring to U of T to inspire and enact change.

Sometimes you’ve got to do what others won't, so tomorrow, you can accomplish what others can't."

Keziah Nongo
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Keziah Nongo, Year 2, CivE

"Although there has been tangible change throughout the years, there is still significant underrepresentation of Black people in STEM, especially engineering. With the numbers as they are, a sense of isolation and imposter phenomenon come with the territory. What has helped me is learning to recognize and validate these experiences, using faculty and peer support to shape my own space in the U of T community."

Stephanie Obeta
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Stephanie Obeta, Year 2 ChemE

"In engineering spaces, I'm usually one of the only Black people in the room. I find it very challenging to overcome imposter phenomenon and believe that I belong, especially when there aren't many people who look like me that I can look up to. I've overcome these obstacles by trying to connect with the few other Black students within our Faculty through the U of T Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and build a sense of community."

Within the context of engineering, what does Black History Month mean to you?

David Boroto
Photo by Roberta Baker

David Boroto, EngSci 1T8 + PEY

"Representation in STEM is essential — it gives young aspiring scientists and engineers a vision of where they could be and what they can achieve. Black History Month provides a great opportunity to highlight and celebrate Black people in STEM, and motivate talented Black youth to pursue meaningful and impactful careers in STEM fields."

Read more about David in our Grads to Watch 2019 article

What advice would you give to current U of T Engineering students/staff/faculty who may not feel like they belong?

Toni Thompson
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Toni Thompson, Year 4 CompE

"There is no need to feel out of place with people who do not accept you for who you are. The absence of conformity is individualism and authenticity. It’s OK to not belong. It’s OK to not be liked. It’s OK to be yourself. That sounds like a lot more fun."

Chioma Ekpo
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Chioma Ekpo, Assistant Director, Engineering Career Centre

"We know it takes a village. You might just find that someone is waiting for you to make them feel they belong, so make the first move. Offer that affirming warm smile and say hello. Start there and begin to make connections. It always starts with you and with me, because it takes a village. This philosophy continues to serve me well."

Deborah Raji
Photo by Roberta Baker

Deborah Raji, EngSci 1T9

"If it's been challenging to feel comfortable with who happens to be around you in your classes, don't be afraid to move beyond the confines of your direct environment in order to find a community that works for you. There's so many incredible people out there, on and off campus, that are completely ready to support you."

Read more about Deborah in our Grads to Watch 2019 article

Photo by Daria Perevezentsev
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Alana Bailey, Year 2 CivE

"Feeling like you do not belong is not always a bad thing; recognize that you are indeed different and as such special. There is only one you, embrace it; why try to fit in when you can stand out?

The most important thing is to have a sense of self-love and value. Know that you are deserving of great opportunities like everyone else. If you think odds are against you more than others, use that to motivate yourself. Strive to be the best version of you each day and seize the opportunity life presents every day. Aim to form the community you seek. Recognize that your experience is unique and will continue to be, but the success of your journey depends a lot on your attitude."

What advice would you give to your 10-year-old self?

Maxwell Gyimah
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Maxwell Gyimah, Year 2 MechE

"Understand that your differences are not the same as deficiencies. Be confident in who you are, bold in what you want to achieve, and what you perceived as barriers will disappear behind your growth and success."

What advice would you give to young students undecided about pursuing STEM?

Elsa Tcheuyap
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Elsa Tcheuyap, Year 1 EngSci

"Becoming comfortable with my Afro-Canadian identity and exiting oppressive environments has led me to engage in provincial-level leadership positions, and since then, my day-by-day goal is to encourage others to break out of their own shells.

If someone is unsure about wanting to study engineering, I would say the most important thing is to let go of any preconception they may have on the “type” of student that studies engineering.

In university, everyone realizes that the stereotypes are largely false and everyone has their place here if they want to (and work to) keep it. I have found joy in becoming involved in campus communities and this has inspired me to reach out to students with experiences similar to mine."

Photo by Daria Perevezentsev
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Thandi Myers, Year 3 CivE

"No matter who you are or where you come from, you can achieve anything by being honest, humble and committed to the journey of self-improvement. Find something that you are passionate about and never lose hold of it. Be confident in who you are and don't compare yourself to others."

Idilo Abdalla
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Idilo Abdalla, Year 2 ElecE

"Pursue your interests. I always had a passion for programming and learning new languages and I would always look for opportunities to learn more. Whether it be joining clubs, or volunteering. It is really important to take the initiative to explore your interests, it might be scary at first, but I guarantee that it is worth it."

Photo by Daria Perevezentsev
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Nnaziri Ihejirika, MechE 0T6 + PEY

"STEM programs provide a variety of opportunities and are not limited to those who want to spend their careers in in this area. The skills you learn can be applied to so many passions. If you're creative, a keen problem solver and looking to make the world better — you'll be well served with a STEM foundation."

What is one way you'd like to see U of T Engineering improve equity, diversity and inclusion?

D'Andre Wilson Ihejirika
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

D'Andre Wilson-Ihejirika, ChemE MASc 1T2

"I really believe in the idea of 'if you can see it, you can be it' and that being able to interact with role models that look like you and have similar backgrounds to you can be a huge motivator.

I would love to see more diversity in the educators at U of T: the professors, TAs, guest lecturers and others. I would especially like to see more Black representation in these groups."

What do you love most about the work you do (whether in the community or workplace)?

Olubenga Olubanjo
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Olugbenga Olubanjo, CivE MASc 1T9

"I'm very excited that my work at Reeddi Inc., which leverages my STEM education and experience, has the potential to improve the quality of life of millions of households and businesses across the world. I hope to continue delivering innovations that create an outstanding social, economic, and environmental impact on the planet."