Approximately nine years ago, I was a high school student preparing to make what would be the largest change in my life at the time. At 17, I was a scholar-athlete with ambitions to study electrical engineering in college. I had applied to engineering programs at six public universities, where I met not one African-American engineer with a degree. Growing up in the wealthiest African-American county in the U.S., I had an abundance of opportunity at my fingertips, a plethora of successful role models to look up to and a desire to succeed and make a difference in this world.  

I had known since I was 10 that I wanted to become an electrical engineer. To prepare for the field, I attended Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Md., which had a well-known and widely respected science and technology program. Roosevelt High has many successful alumni, among them, Sergey Brin, the cofounder of Google.

In the fall of 2005, I began applying to colleges. I had a lot on my plate, being a scholar-athlete. I ran indoor and outdoor track and field. I had ambitions of being an athlete at a Division I institution, like most high school athletes, but I also planned on studying engineering. Although this plan was outstanding, for it to be successful, I needed to ensure that my college education was fully funded by scholarships.

As you see in the image above, which I created in 2005, I was torn between receiving an athletic or academic scholarship. I was a relatively good and competitive athlete. I had received local and regional recognition.  However, at the time, I had recently healed from a severe injury: a laceration on my right leg.

How would I choose the best school to attend? I loved the idea of being an inventor and making gadgets. That’s what attracted me to engineering. Yet, I loved the sport of track and field just as much.

The process of choosing my college and later becoming an engineer was full of valuable lessons.  Many of those lessons shaped who I am today. I’m hoping I can reach a parent or scholar-athlete who has a similar choice to make and offer personal experiences that I found invaluable. The journey has been quite emotional but well worth it.

  1. Choosing Your Future – Despite the Cards Dealt

    Decisions turn on the situation and the level of difficulty of the choice. When I was 18, my largest decision was choosing to go to school at the University of Pittsburgh and try out for the women’s track and field team. I was excited to start life over and leave Maryland, where I had lived my entire life. Although I wanted to go to school down South, the University of Pittsburgh offered the most financial assistance through an academic scholarship.

    My first year of college breezed by quickly. With the routine of running to classes, the weight room and track and field practice, I vaguely remember the special events that occurred during my freshman year. Maintaining a cumulative GPA of 3.0 was the challenge set forth to me.  I was up to the challenge. I walked onto the track team after holding several conversations with the track coach the summer before I started at Pitt. College-level physics, chemistry, calculus and engineering analysis were intense. But I managed to achieve a 3.2 GPA. Having seen the coursework in high school made a large difference. I was content with my performance, but the second semester of my freshman year did not yield the same results.

    Because of my academic performance, I was placed on academic probation at the end of my freshman year.  I had a cumulative GPA of 2.94 and needed a 3.0. I had one semester to get it together. So, I decided to redshirt my sophomore year. I expected my GPA to improve, but instead it dropped to a 2.6.  I made the toughest decision of my life at the time, to leave track and field in my second year of college.  I believed I had to choose something I loved dearly, and that belief led me to plan for my future. 

    Any glimmer of faith and hope began to disappear. It took every bit of faith left in me to believe I could still realize my dreams and become an engineer.  God really showed himself to me. I had grown up in the church, but it wasn’t until that moment when my faith was shaken that I learned to place my faith in God.

  2. Tutoring and Office Hours Are to Your Benefit

    During my freshman year of college, I learned that tutoring and office hours made a world of difference. Before college, I was naive enough to believe that tutoring was only for those who were struggling academically.  In truth, all students can benefit from being tutored or spending additional time with the professor or teaching assistant after a class.
    According to NCAA standards, a student must receive a certain number of academic hours at each educational level to be eligible to participate in sports. During my freshman year,  I was allowed to receive tutoring assistance from the athletic department as well as Pitt EXCEL, a recruitment and retention program for underrepresented engineering undergraduates.  I looked at tutoring as a chance to make up for the study time I missed because of my participation in athletics. Therefore, I always did my homework before tutoring sessions and only worked with the tutor to delve into items that I was sure were unclear to me. This strategy was indeed beneficial.

    Likewise, I would visit the teaching assistants or professors during their office hours. I felt more comfortable asking the teaching assistant questions because we were closer in age. However, I would stay after class to get clarity from a professor on a lecture topic, shortly after it was presented.

    I would recommend that any scholar-athlete use the student services offered at his or her institution.  You don’t have time to be prideful.  At the end of the day, your success is contingent on your mastering of the course material to be awarded a degree.  No one is going to quiz you on the materials you use to master the topic, as long as you act with academic integrity.

  3. Failure Is a Necessary Ingredient of Success, and Perfection Is Not Achieved without Labor

    Sophomore year was a rough transition. As I mentioned, I decided to redshirt my sophomore year. I needed to boost my GPA above 3.0 to maintain my academic scholarship.  I made some obvious mistakes that year by overcompensating and taking classes of higher academic rigor versus being strategic.

    One mistake I had made was taking 18 credit hours of rigorous courses while being on academic probation. I believed I could handle 18 credit hours while managing my stress.  I believed that the suggested four-year plan was the blueprint of classes I had to follow to graduate in time.  I was worried about the shortage of financial assistance and not having enough funds to graduate.

    I received an “F” in one of my courses, which caused me to lose my scholarship completely.  Anxiety and depression set in, and I began to doubt that I was truly meant for this path. Maybe it just wasn’t for me.

    As I matured, I learned that sometimes less is more.

    I changed my strategy to take fewer courses to graduate and engage in cooperative education experiences to maintain my GPA during my junior year. From experience, I soon learned to take only enough courses to be full time and do well in those courses. Taking 18 credit hours is doable but not wise for most. Everyone in college is smart.  That’s why they are there.  But the smartest individuals plan for their success based on what they can feasibly master.

    There was value in cooperative education. I was able to gain work experience from companies such as Ansys, Inc., Powercast Corporation and the Human Engineering Research Laboratories and the Department of Veteran Affairs.  I learned that I valued working in teams and learning through experience rather than from a book.

    The beginning of my junior year and every semester thereafter, I received a semester GPA of 3.3 or higher.

    I found that by taking fewer courses, I learned more.  I did not feel I was experiencing information overload.  I matured as a student. I felt better about asking questions of instructors and teaching assistants so I could master the material. I soon learned that they, along with my peers, were my greatest assets in mastering the material.

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  4. Time Management Is Key

    Plan your study time as well as the time for everything you need to do outside of school.  I am not a full procrastinator, but at times, I do procrastinate. Lacking a plan is lacking a future.  You cannot expect that an idea will evolve into achievement without the proper planning needed to get it there.

    As a scholar-athlete, you must consciously plan your fun, study time, practice and sleep.  Fun sometimes seems to have consequences.  During my first year in college, I decided to live in the engineering living-learning community on central campus. I had an offer to stay on upper campus with the other athletes for an easier commute.  However, I knew that if I lived there, it would be difficult to work with my peers to get my schoolwork completed. In high school, I had learned the difficulty of the engineering coursework. Knowing I had to take college calculus, physics, chemistry and engineering analysis, I was content walking further to track and field practice to be near those who were also studying engineering.

  5. Set Healthy Priorities, Academic and Personal

    Truly, this advice applies to anyone considering engineering while participating in an extracurricular activity.  As much as you plan for your academic life, you should also plan for your personal life.  When you don’t plan for your personal life, your plan becomes unrealistic.  Sleep isn’t my highest priority, but I do believe you should keep yourself on schedule and try to be healthy.  Develop a healthy regimen.  I know that I thrive best when I get a minimum of six hours of sleep.  Planning for less than that is planning to decrease my attentiveness, general awareness and mental retention.

    Planning for your personal time includes planning outings with family, friends and acquaintances. You have to be selective about social activities you attend, but as humans, we are social. Regardless of your level of introversion or extroversion, we all need some level of healthy human interaction.

    While in school, I planned my social engagements out.  I knew when I was going to church and how often.  I knew when I was hanging with friends and how much time I could afford to connect with them and not focus on school.  I knew how long and what days I would call family to link up with them for a “How ya doing?” conversation or a talk just to vent.

    Academics are clearly the top priority. It’s the primary reason why any student is present at a university. It’s imperative to fully engage in planning for your academic success.  I took the time to do this each semester. Just as important, I had to ensure I had balance by making time for the other things that were imperatives for me, first.

  6. Faithful Bounds

    When I had to make the decision to stop running, I believed I would always be able to compete. If I kept myself in shape, I would be able to come back to compete in the NCAA or at a local all-comers meet.  However, choosing my career was a leap of faith.  It was what a mentor of mine calls choosing the harder right.

    To be who you want to be, the first step is to have faith in yourself. If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, the Bible declares, you can move mountains.  That is what I believed, and I spoke to myself. I ensured that I had people around me who would push me to go far and stretch my faith.

    I made the right choice, and I have not second-guessed myself. I do wish that I had stayed in shape, but I know that can happen whenever I make it a priority.  I just have to become active and disconnect working out from training like a Division I athlete.

    There will be plenty of times in your life when you will not have the plan 100 percent figured out, and those you respect may not be able to give you the advice you need.  You will need to stretch your faith, trust that you will achieve your goals and endure the process no matter how difficult the experience may be. It’s all well worth it at the end.

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I never envisioned I would be where I am today. I thought for sure I would be back in Maryland and starting my life with my own family. However, another plan was in store for me. I didn’t know I would be the national chair of one of the nation’s largest student-run organizations, twice. I didn’t know I would graduate with my electrical engineering degree and soon get my doctoral degree.  Looking back, my ambitions were too low. Mentors have a way of helping you see the you that you did not know you could become. I am thankful for the lessons they taught me, and I hope to be able to return their investment to someone else someday.

Although this blog post is my advice, keep in mind that everyone’s advice will not work for you.  There are some things you will only find out by trying and failing.  If you have never failed, you have not lived properly nor begun to do what you’re supposed to do.  You’re not challenging yourself.

Good luck in your journey to and through college. I would enjoy getting your feedback and hearing your story.  Write to us at @NSBE or @lightuptheFIRE on Twitter or in the comment section below.

One thing that we've learnt is that when you expose kids to this type of information: Science, Technology engineering and Math, They actually do find it interesting, They do find it enngaging and they actually do find it fun... Ramsey Jay, Jr