A STRONG FOUNDATION

With more than 31,000 members and a focus on the future, the National Society of Black Engineers is built to last


National Society of Black Engineers members (from left) Barry Henry, Michelle Jackson, Majalia Ansel and Eric Esteves. (Don West photo)

Michelle Jackson was always curious. As a young girl, she loved math and drawing and wanted to become an architect.

That dream changed a little when she began studying at the Wentworth Institute of Technology. Instead of focusing on designing new buildings, she began to focus on how to redesign existing buildings to meet the needs of current users.

But more important, Jackson explained, is she discovered that she was not alone. During her freshman year, she joined the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and met nearly 40 other African Americans who were studying some facet of engineering. On small campuses like Wentworth’s, that sense of connectedness can’t be underestimated.

“It was a great way to share stories and experiences,” said Jackson, who went on to become president of the school’s student chapter and later served on NSBE’s New England board.

“It also made it a little easier to acclimate to Boston,” she added.

She was hooked, and has been a member for the last 20 years, now serving as regional president for the NSBE New England Alumni Association.

“I have found a great benefit in networking with NSBE members,” Jackson said. “It has been invaluable to listen and learn how other engineers are using their degrees in the field. It gives you an insight [into] what you want to do with your career.”

And that’s the point of NSBE. The group started in 1971 when two Purdue University undergraduate students, Edward Barnette and Fred Cooper, talked with the school’s dean of engineering about problems that black engineering students were facing. During the late 1960s, a staggering 80 percent of black freshmen had dropped out of Purdue’s engineering school.

Barnette and Cooper had a plan. They wanted to create a student organization to help black engineering students. Originally called the Black Society of Engineers, the group plodded along for three years before receiving a break when the group’s first president, Brian Harris, wrote a letter to the presidents and deans of all 288 accredited engineering programs across the country. They received about 80 letters in return, and learned that similar problems existed on other campuses. While other groups existed, none operated on a national level to address common issues such as recruitment and retention.

The rest is history. In April 1975, the group held its first national event, attracting 48 students from 32 different schools. While at Purdue University for those two days, the group decided to change its name to the National Society of Black Engineers and approved a new logo. According to the NSBE’s official history, the torch in the logo represents the members’ “everlasting, burning desire to achieve success in a competitive society and positively affect the quality of life for all people.”

The lightning bolt depicted in the NSBE logo, the group explains, represents “the striking impact that will be felt by the society and industry due to the contributions and accomplishments made by the dedicated members …”

Since its start 34 years ago, NSBE has grown from six members to more than 31,000. Its annual convention now hosts about 8,000 attendees. More important, the NSBE has 99 active NSBE Jr. pre-college chapters, 250 student chapters and 68 alumni professional chapters. The group also has 2,000 elected leadership positions and 18 regional conferences.

Not many organizations can boast as eclectic a mix of keynote speakers at their annual conventions as NSBE. Comedian Dick Gregory was one. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was another. Shirley Chisholm, the late New York congresswoman and first African American to run for president, spoke during the society’s 1979 conference. In 1997, hip-hop artist KRS-One performed and held a workshop.

Despite the group’s evolution over the years, the mission of NSBE has remained consistent with its founding principles: “to increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community.”

Jackson is doing her part to fulfill that mission. After earning her Bachelor of Science degree in facilities planning, she now works as a senior facilities planner at Genzyme, the Cambridge-based biomedical company that is undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation of its headquarters on Memorial Drive.

Jackson said she is carrying on the tradition of giving back to the community.

“We do a lot of community service,” she said. “It’s great to be able to talk with students and answer their questions about different fields of engineering. We also get to tell them that it’s not just about being in school, but [that] they must get their degree and go and become successful.”

It all starts with curiosity. One of the NSBE’s goals is to stimulate interest in various engineering disciplines in young minds. They accomplish that goal by holding a slew of tutorials and study groups throughout the country, establishing community outreach programs for middle school and high school students, and offering technical seminars and professional workshops.

For many of NSBE’s members, the group is like a family. Just ask Barry Henry, a senior member of the technical staff at Draper Laboratories.

He, too, was curious as a child.

“From age 11, I knew I wanted to build stuff,” said Henry, who grew up in Mattapan and attended Lincoln Sudbury Regional High School through the city’s Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program.

Henry went on to Northeastern University and joined NSBE while in college, but then wasn’t active with the group during the years when he lived in Worcester and worked at Digital Equipment Corporation. His interest was always there, but the logistics of commuting made getting to meetings difficult.

That changed a few years ago when Henry started worked for Cambridge-based Draper. Some NSBE meetings are held at Draper, and Henry believes the networking opportunities at meetings are vital not only for developing young engineers, but also for maintaining relationships with professional colleagues.

“Interacting with peers outside of the work environment is extremely valuable,” Henry said. “It allows people to be more direct and a little more open and honest.”

Eric Esteves said he is deeply grateful to NSBE. Without them, he explained, he never would have been able to focus and pursue a career in technology.

“Meeting people with similar ideas pushes me,” Esteves said. “It makes a difference to see people who look like you.”

Esteves takes that message to heart. A Boston native who earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northeastern University, Esteves performs a lot of outreach to high school students. Though he never had a mentor himself, he said he likes to meet new students and take them under his wing. It’s not just a passion for Esteves; it’s part of his job.

Esteves is now the program director at TechBoston Consulting Group, a part of the Boston Public Schools system. He also started his own consulting firm, the Esteves Group, which offers Web design, technology planning and assessment services for small businesses and nonprofit organizations. He thanks the NSBE for all of that.

“I’ve met people from all over the country,” he said. “It makes a difference to see people who look like you.”