By Camille Furst
McKenna Samson has always gone to school with students who don’t look like her. Attending the College — which has a 6 percent black population, according to Forbes in 2018— doesn’t come as much of a culture shock.
“I think for minorities, it can be very hard to be in an all-white space and still have the motivation to keep going,” she said. “Going to these conferences and seeing these kids that look like me honestly makes me so happy.”
Administrations within the College have sponsored students’ travels to conferences around the nation for as long as many can remember. These conferences surround topics of diversity and inclusion — and for minority students attending the College, these professional and cultural conferences have given them a sense of inclusion, motivation and hope.
While some conferences are career-based and others are more cultural, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) hosts conferences that intersect both cultural and professional bonds between members in the field of engineering. Students like Ama Nimako, a junior mechanical engineering major and the treasurer of the College’s NAACP branch, and Justin Cruz, a junior electrical engineering student and a senator for the College’s NSBE branch, received funds to attend the association’s fall regional conference in Niagara Falls this past November.
As a black female in the College’s engineering department, Nimako was eager to attend the conference and be exposed to diverse professionals in the field.
“These conferences do give me hope in a sense and refresh my drive to succeed,” she said. “It gives me hope to see so many accomplished women and men who look like me.”
For other students, these conferences have even changed the trajectory of their career paths. Samson was unsure of which field she wanted to pursue before attending the International Radio and Television Society (IRTS) Multicultural Career Workshop in New York City.
After feeling inspired by the panelists, she is more secure in her choice to pursue media and communications.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to be like these panelists,’” she said. “Seeing that representation of people who look like me that are in these places, that are in executive positions of these companies, really did give me the motivation that I needed to apply for these internships.”
While many conferences attended by students from the College are geared toward professional networking, others are a space for minorities to build a sense of community based on cultural similarities.
The College allocates funds to the Pride Mentoring Program (PMP) and the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF). These programs gave financial aid and sponsorship to students who attended the African American Student Leadership Experience (AASLE), a conference held in Washington D.C., which was designed to “coach you into becoming a great leader,” said Nimako, who attended in January. Over 30 people from the College — both staff and students alike — traveled to the conference.
“I think these conferences are really building a sense of community for us,” said Samson, who also credits the conference — while not limited to Christianity — to building her faith as a Christian. “It really did change my attitude about a lot of things.”
Many students credit Jamal Johnson, the College’s senior assistant director of mentoring and retention, for finding these conferences and encouraging them to attend.
As the assistant director of the Pride Mentoring Program, Johnson urges students to attend these conferences and strengthen both cultural and professional connections.
“If it weren’t for Mr. Johnson … I don’t know (if) we would have them,” Samson said.
Johnson said that the PMP supports students with transportation and hotels, but that it is not simply an effort by the mentoring program alone — it’s something the College “does for all students.”
“I’ll never forget the first set of students I took,” he said. “It was the first time a student was on an airplane. It was the first time a student stayed in a hotel. It was the first time that students have gone to the West Coast. It’s important that they have these experiences because they get to see the world beyond the borders of New Jersey.”
While the Pride Mentoring Program was established when Jamal began working at the College, students have been sponsored to attend conferences for as long as he can remember. The Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (OIDEI) also sets funds aside.
“This money is not for a specific category of student, but for leadership and professional development experiences related to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Kerri Thompson Tillett, the associate vice president for institutional diversity and inclusion. “Any student who is interested in attending a conference that is centered on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion is welcome to approach OIDEI for support.”
Students who have attended these conferences are eager to bring what they learned back to campus. The College’s NSBE branch is looking to host a conference on campus and Samson hopes to implement more outreach plans for the College’s NAACP branch.
“When you go to a conference that’s geared more toward culture, now you’re with people that you might be more comfortable with, so you don’t have the imposter syndrome, you don’t have an inferiority complex, you feel comfortable and like you can be your authentic self,” Johnson said. “It gives them a breath of fresh air that empowers them when they come back on campus to be able to … be more assertive, to be more involved and to even be more diverse in their mindset.”