On Thursday, the Michigan Department of Transportation hosted its ninth student showcase from the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Transportation Diversity Recruitment Program (TDRP).
The event hosted 63 HBCU student interns from Detroit and across the country at the downtown Compuware Building for an all-day program and engaged students in skill-building STEM workshops, discussions with industry professionals, and a host of speakers offering guidance on how to navigate the job market. In closing, students had the opportunity to pitch innovative ideas to partner organizations, including the American Council of Engineering Companies of Michigan (ACEC) and the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO).
“I’ve seen it grow from a vision,” said James Jackson, Coordinator of the Transportation Diversity Recruitment Program (TDRP) at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).
“I’ve seen it before it was written on paper, and I was fortunate to meet with my leaders and bring the program to life. Our director graduated from an HBCU and we brainstormed how to continue encouraging excellence and continuous improvement in the field from just four students back then.”
The program’s mission is to recruit and expose underrepresented groups of students to transportation-specific career pathways by developing professional competence, expanding their networks, and earning an income to assist with college-related expenses.
In 2014 with funding from the Federal Highway Administration grant, MDOT’s HBCU TDRP initially supported four students before growing to reach dozens of STEM student applicants.
Paul C. Ajegba, P.E., Director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, spoke to the Michigan Chronicle about his inspiration to create opportunities for Black and Brown students. Ajegba has sustained 31 years of experience at MDOT before being appointed to the directorship by Governor Whitmer in 2019.
“For me, it really began when I got my undergraduate in civil engineering when I was in Prairie View University in Texas at that time in the 80s. We didn’t have the opportunity to get these kinds of summer internship positions. Mostly during the summertime, we go work at McDonald to make some money and come back. So having the opportunity now to say the gap that you have is the basic theoretical knowledge but you’re not putting the practical knowledge with it to make an entire experience worthwhile.”
Ajegba dedicated himself to creating opportunities he wished were available to himself and his peers at the time.
“I always felt if I ever had the opportunity to change our world that I would,” said Ajegba. “Here, we can start to do that.”
This year’s cohort of 63 students were recruited from one hundred and seven ABET accredited HBCUs, including Alabama A&M University, Howard University, Tuskegee University, and others.
Students are connected to one of 17 Michigan engineering companies to host 32 placements with private firms, such as WSP, HNTB, and HRC.
Over 13 weeks, students gain hands-on experience in engineering, technical, inspection, and project management services for state road and bridge projects over the summer. Additionally, MDOT provides professional training on appealing to job prospects, building confidence and an adaptable work ethic, as well as guidance on maximizing a growth-based career pathway.
“We want to look forward to the future,” said Alonzo Banks, a civil engineering student from Prairie View A&M University in Texas. “I don’t want to limit myself while I am figuring out where to go. The program helped to stay motivated while I work and learn about options.”
The HBCU-focused program is structured as a supportive pipeline to fuel representation and cultivate STEM work experience for young professionals of color.
“The more people you make aware, they can actually see themselves learning and growing. We need not just Black, but all cultures, all phases, all races, to understand the possibilities that are within transportation.”
Students are provided housing and education outreach accommodations through MDOT’s partnership with seven Michigan schools: Michigan State University, University of Michigan-Flint, Oakland University, Western Michigan University, Grand Valley State University, Saginaw Valley State University, and Wayne State University.
The exposure to local campuses and graduate programs, said Jackson, is meant to encourage student participants to pursue graduate programs and potential relocation to Michigan for future career paths.
When asked if MDOT hires the students directly after the program, Jackson told the Michigan Chronicle, “MDOT has (extended) offers to many interns and has hired one who is currently employed and one that has recently accepted an MDOT offer. We also have 4 HBCU students who are working in Detroit for a few of our ACEC partnership firms, SOMAT, Fishbeck, and Michael Baker. We are expecting more good new this summer as well.”
The showcase implemented workshops led by industry professionals. Morning workshops were split between men and women to provide guidance on mental health, challenges, and barriers of an educated minority and to build a confident mentality. Barbara Dunlap, engineer and coordinator at the workforce development and university relations at American Electric, and David A. Johnson, managing consultant at MetLife, held discussions centered on vital components to student success.
The keynote was given by Dr. Robert C. Hampshire, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology and Chief Science Officer at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“Twenty-five years ago, I was in a program just like this and that really made a difference. Not just the folks running the program, but the relationships you have all formed are really incredible. I stay in touch with those folks to this day.”
Dr. Hampshire assured the mixed audience of students and professionals of the Biden Administration’s commitment to advancing equity throughout all departments.
As part of the Build Back Better initiative, President Biden emphasized the need for racial equity across the American economy by advancing educational equity and excellence through opportunities at HBCUs.
“That required all federal agencies to take a deep dive in how their programs and policies are impacting, particularly racial equity in this country. And we took that seriously. The federal government is taking this incredibly seriously to understand the impacts, in our case transportation, on equity, or the lack thereof, in our communities.”
The STEM economy is set on the “2030 Challenge,” an initiative meant to bolster global architecture, and building community needs to serve a growing demand for sustainability-based engineering and innovation by 2030.
Director Ajegba, HBCU TDRP Coordinator James Jackson, and their team look forward to expanding the program by next year. They envision a greater reach by engaging the construction industry in internship placements and growing opportunities for underrepresented students toward a successful career path in transportation.
“I always tell my students,” Jackson said. “Education gets you to the door, but experience gets you through the door.”