BSU kicks off 50th anniversary celebration

Panelists include Stephen Colbert show saxophonist, NASA mission manager, MIT and Wellesley professors

The Black Students’ Union kicked off its 50th anniversary year with two alumni panel discussions and a keynote speech from Bob Weis, president of Walt Disney Imagineering.

The first panel featured alumni who had pursued careers in science or engineering after graduating from MIT, and the second featured alumni who had followed other paths, such as music, film, or anthropology.

BSU co-chair Anthony Rolland ’19 wrote in an email to The Tech that the event organizers wanted to show students a “diverse perspective” of what they could do after graduating from MIT by inviting panelists from different fields and of different ages.

The BSU is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year with a series of four events: the kickoff event, called “Design Your Destiny”; a reunion over CPW weekend April 21–22; a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Howard University; and an event in the fall featuring the founders of the organization.

The organization wants to “celebrate the black students at MIT and their importance [both inside and outside] the Institute” through its anniversary celebrations, Rolland wrote in an email to The Tech.

The event was planned by Diversity and Inclusion Officer Judy “JJ” Jackson, the BSU executive committee, and representatives from the Black Alumni(ae) of MIT.

During the first panel, panelists shared the paths and challenges that led them to become scientists or engineers.

Aprille Ericsson ’86, now a mission manager at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, joined the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science program at MIT as a 17-year-old and fell in love with engineering.

Ericsson recalled, “I stayed up till 2 a.m. to make a bridge and almost cut off the tip of my finger. I had to go to the infirmary, but the bridge looked good.”

Ericsson’s path to engineering success was fraught with other challenges as well. “I failed differential equations twice, and was told I could not succeed here at MIT,” Ericsson shared.

But at the same time, there were people around her who believed in her. “This was really important,” Ericsson said.

Prof. Wesley Harris described his high school physics teacher Ms. Eloise Washington as being “my beacon, my mentor.” She had helped him build a cloud chamber and win first place at a black students’ science fair, and encouraged him to apply and enroll at the University of Virginia after the same project went on to receive the third prize at the white students’ science fair.

“Let them know that you are black,” she had said. “Let them know that black students can get scholarships.”

Melissa Smith PhD ’12 of Lincoln Laboratory shared advice others had given. She said you shouldn’t compare yourself to other people, as “You don’t know their advantages, their disadvantages, and their circumstances.”

The panelists also revealed their love of science fiction. For Prof. Sylvester James Gates ’73, the movie Spaceways was his first introduction to science as a child. He eventually came to own an entire collection of the Fantastic Four comic series.

“If I had kept my collection since then, I would have been a millionaire,” Gates said. “Unfortunately, my stepmother forced me to throw them all away when I went away to college.”

During the second panel, panelists discussed what led them initially to attend MIT, and then what turned their interests to fields outside of STEM.

Moderator Robbin Chapman PhD ’06, associate provost and academic director of diversity at Wellesley College, told the audience that “one of the best parts of having a PhD” is that “it doesn’t limit your options — it expands your options.”

Chapman, who earned her PhD in EECS and worked for NASA, now combines her love for computation with her interest in education, through “scholar-activism.”

Other alumni described lifelong loves of both music and science.

Louis Fouché ’07, now the saxophonist on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, grew up in rural Mountaintop, Pennsylvania, where there were no other black or Latino families. Fouché’s parents taught him about his identity as black and Puerto Rican.

“Growing up, I was very culturally aware,” he said.

After hearing jazz musician Jimmy Smith play saxophone as a 12-year-old, Fouché “caught the music bug” and learned how to play his father’s saxophone. In high school he attended the MITES program, which he said “changed [his] life.”

After graduating from MIT, he worked on his music career while simultaneously developing the MIT Online Science, Technology, and Engineering Community program for the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs. In 2016, he left MOSTEC, to which he had been devoted for five years, and decided to pursue music full-time. He described it as getting rid of his “safety net.”

Kelvin Frazier PhD ’15 first tried to double major in chemistry and music in college, but ended up choosing math and chemistry over music.

However, he was still able to pursue his passion for music extracurricularly by participating in choir and band. When Frazier found that he was the only black student in his graduate classes at MIT, he joined the Academy of Courageous Minority Engineers and eventually became the president of both ACME and of the Black Graduate Students’ Association.

After graduating from MIT, Frazier found a brief stint at a consulting firm but eventually decided to restart his career as an R&B singer-songwriter. An independent label later discovered him, and now his new single, “Marked and Scarred,” has appeared on the Top 40 Urban AC radio charts and on the Sirius XM “Heart and Soul” national radio station.

Other panelists also shared the challenges of living between the worlds of STEM and other fields. Prof. Amah Edoh ’03, now assistant professor of African studies at MIT, earned her PhD in anthropology from the Institute in 2016.

Growing up in Togo and Zimbabwe, Edoh “had this question of what it meant to be a black African in the world” from an early age.

Edoh arrived at MIT, following in her brother’s footsteps, but soon realized STEM was not her passion.

For many years, she pursued global health work, first as a Fulbright Scholar in Zambia, developing a program for children who were either infected or orphaned by HIV, then at Harvard, earning her Masters in Public Health.

But rather than the solution-focused world of public health, she was “more interested in who determined what the problem was, and who determined what a solution looked like.” She ended up studying anthropology, earning her PhD from MIT.

As a HASS-inclined person, she felt like an outsider in the STEM world. “You know there’s a hierarchy in the different disciplines,” she said. She had to figure out “how to fortify [her]self” — to learn what she believed in, what would provide her “spiritual sustenance,” and what she was good at.

She also said that building community, surrounding yourself with a “chosen family,” is important, “especially in a place where you don’t fit in.”

Colin “Topper” Carew, a principal investigator at the Media Lab, also shared his experience of living in multiple worlds.

He credited his paternal grandmother from Virginia with a fourth-grade education as the person who initially inspired him to write. She had shelves full of African-American periodicals like Ebony and the Pittsburgh Courier, and she raised money for kids to to go historically black colleges and universities. She was also a cook who could “make a family of ten people feel like they were all full.”

She insisted he go to a white school, where he and his two cousins were the first black students. White students bullied him, punching him and calling him names.

When his white high school guidance counselor asked him what he wanted to do, he said he wanted to go to Harvard. The counselor told him he’d be better off in the Navy as a steelworker.

His grandfather had made him memorize the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, and he recalled the line, “if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you.” He emphasized the importance of self-confidence.

Carew said the work he does now is “trying to unpack some of that stuff, some of that cotton people have in their heads.”

After a keynote presentation by Weis, students had the opportunity to ask questions of the speakers. The Q&A allowed the students to “follow up at a lower level” after hearing the panelists’ stories, and to “ask the difficult questions about careers,” said Rolland.

A reception followed, allowing students, speakers, and community members to network.

Mimi Wahid ’21, who had heard about the event through her affiliation with the BSU, said that she “enjoyed hearing the stories of the panelists who studied STEM fields and later pursued arts- or humanities-related careers. … It was impactful to hear the stories of individuals who have done incredible things for both MIT and the world.”