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February 7, 2020 | Alumni

Black History Month: U of T Engineering alumni reflect on representation and share advice

Speaking on challenges faced and sharing advice, Black alumni and students offer a hopeful vision for diversity in STEM

By Liz Do

Olugbenga Olubanjo smiles as he looks up from the laptop he is working on.

In celebration of Black History Month, U of T Engineering — in collaboration with the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) U of T Chapter and Mikhail Burke (BASc 2012, PhD 2018), Inclusion & Transition Advisor — invited members of its community who identify as Black to reflect on their experiences, share advice for their peers or voice changes they’d like to see.

The responses illuminate their diverse range of lived experiences and an ongoing need for systemic change.

Within the context of engineering, what does Black History Month mean to you?

David Boroto smiling, and wearing an Engineers Without Borders T-shirt.
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

David Boroto (BASc 2019)

"Representation in STEM is essential — it gives young aspiring scientists and engineers a vision of where they could be and what they can achieve. Black History Month provides a great opportunity to highlight and celebrate Black people in STEM, and motivate talented Black youth to pursue meaningful and impactful careers in STEM fields."

Have you experienced obstacles with being a Black person in engineering or engineering educational spaces? How have you overcome them?

Mohamed Hirole smiles, standing in a hallway.
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Mohamed Hirole, third-year electrical engineering student

"In my journey to U of T Engineering, I faced obstacles of not having the prior knowledge or access to STEM educational tools that many of my peers did. It's uncommon for people in my community to pursue STEM studies or even attend STEM camps during their younger years.

By taking initiative and joining student groups like the University of Toronto Aerospace Team (UTAT) & NSBE, I was able to learn what it means to work in teams and build comradery along the way. Experiences and leadership roles in both clubs like these opened my eyes to the talents and passion students bring to U of T to inspire and enact change.

Sometimes you’ve got to do what others won't, so tomorrow, you can accomplish what others can't."

Stephanie Obeta smiles, standing in a brightly lit hallway.
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Stephanie Obeta, second-year chemical engineering student

"In engineering spaces, I'm usually one of the only Black people in the room. I find it very challenging to overcome imposter phenomenon and believe that I belong, especially when there aren't many people who look like me that I can look up to. I've overcome these obstacles by trying to connect with the few other Black students within our Faculty through the U of T Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and build a sense of community."

What advice would you give to current U of T Engineering students/staff/faculty who may not feel like they belong?

Deborah Raji laughs as she stands in an atrium, hands in pockets.
Photo by Roberta Baker

Deborah Raji (BASc 2019)

"If it's been challenging to feel comfortable with who happens to be around you in your classes, don't be afraid to move beyond the confines of your direct environment in order to find a community that works for you. There's so many incredible people out there, on and off campus, that are completely ready to support you."

Chioma Ekpo smiles, standing with one hand on hip in a hallway.
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Chioma Ekpo, Assistant Director, Engineering Career Centre (BA 1995 NEW)

"We know it takes a village. You might just find that someone is waiting for you to make them feel they belong, so make the first move. Offer that affirming warm smile and say hello. Start there and begin to make connections. It always starts with you and with me, because it takes a village. This philosophy continues to serve me well."

What advice would you give to young students undecided about pursuing STEM?

Nnaziri Ihejirika smiles quietly, standing by a window.
Photo courtesy Nnaziri Ihejirika

Nnaziri Ihejirika (BASc 2007)

"STEM programs provide a variety of opportunities and are not limited to those who want to spend their careers in in this area. The skills you learn can be applied to so many passions. If you're creative, a keen problem solver and looking to make the world better — you'll be well served with a STEM foundation."

What is one way you'd like to see U of T Engineering improve equity, diversity and inclusion?

D'Andre Wilson-Ihejirika smiles while standing in a hallway.
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

D'Andre Wilson-Ihejirika (MASc 2012)

"I really believe in the idea of 'if you can see it, you can be it' and that being able to interact with role models that look like you and have similar backgrounds to you can be a huge motivator.

I would love to see more diversity in the educators at U of T: the professors, TAs, guest lecturers and others. I would especially like to see more Black representation in these groups."

What do you love most about the work you do (whether in the community or workplace)?

Olubenga Olubanjo smiles as he looks up from the laptop he is working on.
Photo by Daria Perevezentsev

Olugbenga Olubanjo (MASc 2019)

"I'm very excited that my work at Reeddi Inc., which leverages my STEM education and experience, has the potential to improve the quality of life of millions of households and businesses across the world. I hope to continue delivering innovations that create an outstanding social, economic, and environmental impact on the planet."

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