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National Society of Black Engineers Chapter Offers Opportunities at UW

May 19, 2016
man standing and pointing to images on video screen while others look on
Kalu Okonkwo (middle) and the UW chapter of National Society of Black Engineers hosted a video game night in April to increase awareness of the organization. (UW Photo)

Kalu Okonkwo is on a career path he never envisioned as a young man.

Originally from Nigeria, he grew up in Chicago for most of his life. And his journey seemed to be mapped out pretty well. Coming from a family of medical professionals, he attended college in Chicago for two years in preparation for a career in medicine. But, with just one semester to go on the pre-med track, he left the program.

“I figured I wasn’t cut out for it,” he says. “My family was intensely into health, but I wanted to pursue something different. I wanted to pursue petroleum engineering and be the first engineer in my family.”

That brought him to the University of Wyoming’s College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) in 2014, and he soon found himself starting over in school. Early on, he felt he needed a social and career network, but wasn’t sure where to find it. Okonkwo credits his friend for the idea: What if UW established a chapter for the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE)?

At the time, he was a new student and was overwhelmed, so he declined to take the lead on the project. After a few semesters, though, the idea gained some traction.

It wasn’t easy at first. As the chapter’s first president, he knocked on doors around Laramie to look for interested members.

“I set the initiative and went looking for students,” Okonkwo says. “It was really difficult. I had to literally go from apartment to apartment to try to talk to people about NSBE. Most were skeptical initially. The term ‘black’ scared everyone off. But, that term has a historical connotation, and doesn’t really represent what NSBE is right now.”

Okonkwo says the national and UW chapters are inclusive of all engineering students from underrepresented groups. The NSBE began in 1975, and the UW chapter was established as a registered student organization at UW in fall 2015.

“It was started during a time period when they wanted to motivate black students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics),” he says. “Over the years, NSBE became something that focused more on all minorities. That’s what I tell people to get them to understand, to see how far we’ve come to help ourselves and others.”

Bismarck Echegile was one of the early members at UW. He studies engineering and is active within the NSBE chapter.

“Being a member of NSBE has helped me in building relationships with other minority engineers,” he says. “These relationships have come to be beneficial, both academically and socially. I also am given a platform in which I can give back to the community and develop leadership skills.”

As a way to establish a presence and give back to the college community, the UW chapter hosts free tutoring for CEAS students. The outreach efforts have had a positive impact. After starting with 10 members, membership is up to nearly 50 in 2016. Additionally, 11 members went to the NSBE national convention in March. The group had the opportunity to speak with industry professionals and recruiters, and network with fellow students.

“It was an amazing experience being able to represent the University of Wyoming on a national level,” says Ikechukwu Ezugwu, the newest chapter vice president. “It afforded me the opportunity to network and interact with other engineering students from other universities and institutions.”

According to the members, the most important takeaway from their discussions was the importance of developing leadership skills during college.

“The fun thing about NSBE is you have opportunities for leadership roles,” Okonkwo says. “I joined during the summer, and then I was already involved at the national level. I became a liaison and, in the meetings, they’d talk about multimillion dollar projects. I’d think, ‘I shouldn’t be here. I’m just an undergrad.’ That’s an opportunity I wouldn’t have gotten had I not joined NSBE.”

The chapter meets every Friday during the academic year in Room 201 of the Wyoming Union from 2:30-4 p.m.

“Being a part of this chapter has allowed me to meet with other minority engineers who want to make the best out of themselves,” Echegile says. “Seeing other engineers with such passion has made me want to make the most out of every opportunity given. As a chapter, we all want to be established and respected leaders in our various fields.”

It’s not all business, though. The chapter hosted a video game tournament in the Wyoming Union during spring semester, open to all students. Participants came from multiple academic programs and backgrounds to compete in soccer, basketball and football games. Members hope they are raising awareness of the chapter, for students on campus right now and those who join the ranks later.

“I would like to encourage everyone to join who wants to belong to a family that can give you the support to be the best you can be,” Echegile says. “Although the chapter might be new on campus, we want to establish a presence that would be recognized for many years.”

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