The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is being credited as the Faculty of Engineering at McMaster University and five other Ontario universities launch new fellowships to expand the pathways for Indigenous and Black students pursuing doctoral degrees in engineering.
Dean of engineering at McMaster Ishwar K. Puri says nationwide, Indigenous and Black engineering faculty members are poorly represented.
He said the Indigenous and Black Engineering and Technology (IBET) Momentum Fellowships aim to address this inequity, and the activities associated with BLM around the world in 2020, helped to highlight the urgent need to encourage and support the pursuit of graduate studies by underrepresented groups.
“After the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that occurred, starting in the United States and then went worldwide last year, we went into discussion with our local chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers,” Puri told CBC News.
“Those discussions revealed several things — that regardless of the origin of Black students, whether they were domestic or if they were international, the experience of Black students who entered the faculty of engineering … differed from the experiences of other students,” he said.
“The conversations with the students made us better aware of the challenges they face as Black students, including challenges of access and growing the numbers of Black students,” Puri added.
The partnership includes the engineering and math faculties at the University of Waterloo, and the engineering faculties at McMaster University, the University of Ottawa, the University of Toronto, Queen’s University and Western University.
Recipients of the IBET Momentum Fellowship will receive $25,000 a year for four years as they pursue doctorate degrees and specialized engineering research. It will also help to prepare students for academic careers as professors and industry researchers.
“It’s part of a larger effort that we have, which is to grow the numbers of Black students all the way from undergraduates to graduate students,” Puri said.
“At the faculty level, staff level and at the PhD level, you could count the numbers of [Black and Indigenous] students, faculty and staff in single digits. They are not very large numbers.”
Interested Canadian students can apply for the IBET Momentum Fellowships directly with each university as part of their application.
“We hope to see graduate enrolment increase among Black and Indigenous scholars at Ontario universities with the release of the fellowships in the years to come,” says Michael Thompson, associate dean of graduate studies, faculty of engineering.
“The initiative represents a big step toward enriching the academic landscape.”
The launch of the IBET Momentum Fellowship coincides with McMaster University’s new approach to support inclusive excellence.
As part of the Strategic Equity and Excellence Recruitment and Retention program within McMaster’s EDI Strategy and Action Plan, McMaster released a cohort hiring initiative this past November that will see up to 12 Black faculty members join across all six faculties.
At the end of December, the Faculty of Engineering also supported the National Society of Black Engineers McMaster chapter in rolling out the NSBE McMaster Chapter Entrance Award.
It became more apparent than ever that this scholarship initiative really had to be pushed for, and that’s exactly what my team and I did.– Feyisayo Enuiyin
Feyisayo Enuiyin, the NSBE McMaster chapter’s president and chemical engineering student in her final year, is happy to see the scholarship come to fruition.
“It’s definitely still like a wow,” Enuiyin told CBC News.
“Maybe after everything has settled and when school is done … I will say there’s actually a scholarship for Black engineering students, maybe then it will hit me, but for now it’s definitely still like a wow.”
According to Enuiyin, many Black students from underprivileged communities don’t think engineering is a space for them.
She also said there have not been many opportunities available to these students.
“The year 2020 definitely brought a lot of awareness for Black individuals all over the world … [highlighting] systemic barriers that are set against Black individuals when it comes to areas [including] academia,” Enuiyin said.
“The issues that were brought to light in 2020 and the awareness that came about, it became more apparent than ever that this scholarship initiative really had to be pushed for, and that’s exactly what my team and I did.”
NSBE chapter aims to raise $62,500 for scholarship
The NSBE McMaster Chapter Entrance Award will provide $2,500 a year to first-year Black students who demonstrate strong leadership skills and valuable contributions to their community. Recipients will also be offered a position on the NSBE McMaster executive team.
The NSBE McMaster chapter’s goal is to raise $62,500 for the scholarship and they are currently accepting donations.
“As a Black student in engineering, there are systemic barriers that definitely have been put in place that maybe stop students from wanting to enrol into STEM — whether that is Black representation, whether that is financial issues — those are the kinds of things that we looked and [thought] this is definitely the year to have a NSBE McMaster scholarship,” Enuiyin said.
“This is the year to increase representation and awareness. The Black students in our program, we are not many [so] we are just trying to do our best to change that.”
Enuiyin credits past executives of the NSBE McMaster chapter for creating the idea for the scholarship.
She wants future students to know that the scholarship was created for them even before they knew that they wanted to study engineering.
“We’re saying come study engineering, not because it is going to be an easy journey for you. You will face challenges, it’s not like a walk through the park but we know that you are more than capable,” Enuiyin said.
“The complexion of your skin should in no way be an hindrance to your success.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.