By Juliana Palomino
When you come to college, you typically leave your family behind. Ariel Robinson, however, found a new one.
Ariel is vice president of the UK student chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), an organization that has become her home away from home.
“Through NSBE I’ve made all of my best friends,” says the fourth-year civil engineering major. “Engineering is hard. When I thought I was going to change my major, I cried on these people’s shoulders, literally. Every person here has my best interests at heart.”
NSBE creates such camaraderie by rallying students around a common vision: to increase the number of culturally responsible engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community. Nationwide, the organization seeks to graduate 10,000 African-American engineers by 2025, and this provides a driving force for the UK chapter.
“At a college level, it’s important for us to help with retention,” Ariel says. “Many African-American students who go into engineering leave, and this can come from not seeking help when they need it. NSBE tries to make that help easy to find.”
UK NSBE students gather twice a week for group study sessions where older students who have survived tough classes often help those in the weeds of calculus 2 or thermodynamics. Professionally, students meet with local industries such as Toyota, one of the group’s biggest sponsors, to network and learn about the field. Members also attend regional and national conferences where students find career opportunities and friends.
“National conference is so empowering,” says Ariel, who found a summer internship at last year’s event. “Last year around 12,000 people attended, as well as hundreds of employers. Each year I meet so many people. I now have an unofficial mentor and friends around the country.”
NSBE also reaches out to the local community through tutoring, science demonstrations in local schools and volunteering at the college’s Engineers Day open house, also known as E-Day. Once a semester, members hand out food to the homeless in downtown Lexington.
Gabriel Dadi, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and the organization’s faculty advisor, is proud of the way that NSBE’s mission encompasses everything a student could want in an organization.
“Need help with academics? Want to serve your university and local community? Need help being supported by classmates with shared experiences? UK NSBE has it covered,” he says.
Among African-American students, that strong community often stems from their diverse backgrounds.
“Thinking back to past experiences you’ve had is what can help you solve problems. Having diverse backgrounds and experiences opens up your mind a lot,” says Ariel. “Many African-Americans weren’t sheltered, and that helps us think more out of the box.”
Though Ariel credits much of her success to a mother who encouraged her to be an engineer, she knows that many African-American students aren’t as fortunate. This drives NSBE to reach out to younger children and spread the word about what the engineering profession can offer them.
“It’s so different for us than it is for a student whose parents are both engineers or whose school has engineering classes,” she says. “In poorer households, engineering isn’t talked about the way medicine or law might be. A lot of kids don’t even know what it is. We try to get to kids early.”
Dadi believes this passion for reaching out and supporting each other is what makes NSBE unique.
“A culture of enthusiasm and support within UK NSBE drives the group. Students want to be involved and want to be engaged,” he says. “Getting involved in NSBE helps students find a sense of belonging and connect with the community around them.”