Changing Faces

By Hamilton, Kendra | Black Issues in Higher Education, November 20, 2003 | Go to article overview

Changing Faces


Hamilton, Kendra, Black Issues in Higher Education


Georgia Tech program helps minority scholars in science and engineering jump-start their careers in academia

With the ink barely dry on her diploma from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Dr. Chekesha Liddell is heading off to a dream job at Cornell University in New York, one of the top 10 engineering schools in the nation. And she won't be going empty-handed. She'll take a going-away present from her alma mater: a $20,000 Career Initiation Grant (CIG) from Georgia Tech's FACES program. It will help to buy equipment and, combined with the start-up funds that are part of her package from Cornell, perhaps even fund a graduate student.

"People have been willing to invest in me," Liddell says, "And that really makes you feel like you're being taken seriously."

A FACES grant helped Dr. William Robinson settle into his first academic assignment as an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University. "This is hectic," he says of his first semester of teaching, "but it feels really good to be on this side of the desk."

FACES also helped ease Dr. Samuel Graham's return to academia after a stellar career with Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif. The Georgia Tech grad applied for a career grant in his final year of eligibility, and now he's an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at his alma mater. "The timing was absolutely right," Graham says.

In the quest to change the face of the science and engineering professoriate - where the numbers of African Americans are "dramatically low," says Dr. Reginald DesRoches, coordinator of the CIG program - Georgia Tech appears to have taken a great leap forward with FACES.

The acronym stands for Facilitating Academic Careers in Engineering and Science, and some of the program's elements are quite familiar: For example, creating a "pipeline" to funnel promising undergraduates from Tech, Spelman and Morehouse into graduate school, then offering fellowship and enrichment opportunities to get those students through the arduous and often-lonely process. But the notion of offering funds to select students to help them jump-start their research careers seems new - and quite exciting.

"I absolutely wish this had been around for me," says DesRoches, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tech. And though his tone is jocular, he's not kidding.

Including the three this year, a total of nine Georgia Tech graduates have received the CIGs. "And they're all at different kinds of schools: large research institutions, HBCUs, small teaching schools. All are having an impact in their own way," DesRoches adds.

Of course, the reach of the FACES program greatly exceeds the nine beneficiaries of the career initiation program. There are FACES scholars, undergraduates who receive $1,000 per semester to participate in research projects supervised by faculty. At the graduate level, there are FACES fellows, who receive annual supplements to their departmental support - $2,000 before they pass their comps; $4,000 after.

"We also offer career development workshops for the students to tell them about things like writing an application, handling the interview process, negotiating an offer," DesRoches adds. "With students from traditional backgrounds, many of them have a parent or a relative who's a professor and can guide them informally through the process. Our students typically don't have anyone from their families who can help them in that way - that's why mentoring from Black faculty at Georgia Tech is such an important part of what we do."

Indeed, the winners of the Career Initiation Grants appear to have made the most of their opportunities.

Liddell, a FACES fellow who rocketed through her Ph. …

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