This Black Female Engineer Broke through the Double Bind of Racism and Sexism and Directly Nurtured a Legion of STEM Leaders

This Black Female Engineer Broke through the Double Bind of Racism and Sexism and Directly Nurtured a Legion of STEM Leaders

Yvonne Y. Clark, or Y.Y., taught at Tennessee State University, a historically Black university, for 55 years. In this episode, we hear from Y.Y.’s colleagues, students and family members about who she was as an educator and how she’s remembered. We’ll also explore where historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) stand today—particularly, the reason they graduate so many many successful Black scientists, compared with other institutions, and their place in the future of science. Plus, we present a reimagining of Y.Y.’s accomplishments: What did it mean to be the first?

This podcast is distributed by PRX and published in partnership with Scientific American.

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[Have you listened to the previous episodes? No? You can find Episode One hereEpisode Two here and Episode Three here.]

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

EPISODE 4: The First of Many

YVONNE CLARK: Now you might call me a pioneer, but I don’t see myself as one. I am tired of being the first person doing something. Where are the rest of these people?

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: I’m Carol Sutton Lewis.

KATIE HAFNER: And I’m Katie Hafner. This is Lost Women of Science.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: This season, we’ve been talking about the mechanical engineer, Yvonne Young Clark.

KATIE HAFNER: We called this season “The First Lady of Engineering,” and it’s precisely because of YY Clark’s many firsts that we’re focusing on her…

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: But to YY and some of her contemporaries, being the first is a complicated thing. In this final episode, we’ll explore some of the reasons why.

KATIE HAFNER: And we’ll look at the work that really defined YY’s life, her work as a teacher. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: We’ll also hear from the people carrying on the legacy of that work at HBCUs, particularly, the people supporting Black students as they pursue STEM careers.

KATIE HAFNER: YY spent 55 years at Tennessee State University, and in that time, she mentored hundreds of students. And Carol, to talk about that, we have to talk about the photograph.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Ah, yes. The photograph. 

KATIE HAFNER: Really early in our research on YY, we latched on to one photo in particular. It’s black and white. And it’s from the 60s. YY is standing behind her desk at the front of the classroom, with rows of students… 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: …all male…

KATIE HAFNER: …all male, facing her.

CHERYL TALLEY: Just in command of the situation right there.

S. KEITH HARGROVE: She could just, just as well, turn around and be writing on the board, right.

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: Everybody has their book open. Everybody looks like they are… 

S. KEITH HARGROVE: …full attention and, and grasping every word.

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: They’re there. And they’re with her. She has them.

KATIE HAFNER: And Carol, that’s what I loved about the photograph when I first saw it. She’s leaning forward, and she’s got her fist on a textbook, like she’s emphasizing a point. And to me, it says so much about who she was as a teacher.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Yeah. It’s from a 1964 profile of YY in Ebony magazine – one of a whole spread of photos taken on campus…

MILTON CLARK: Okay I think we go this way. It will put us there…

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: I’m at Tennessee State University in Nashville, with Milton Clark, YY’s son. We’re heading to the old engineering building.

Tennessee State is one of a group of schools known as historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. HBCUs were established before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. At a time when the vast majority of institutions barred Black people, HBCUs provided a means to an education. 

Nashville has many HBCUs. There’s Fisk University, where YY’s parents met, Meharry Medical College, where YY’s husband Bill taught biochemistry. And there’s Tennessee State, where YY taught.

MILTON CLARK: Gotta get my bearings… 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: TSU’s campus is sprawling. The buildings today range from brick dormitories to large concrete laboratory buildings. Towards the center of campus is McCord Hall, the old engineering building.

MILTON CLARK: Yep. This is it.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Milton and I walk up the front steps. It’s a bit imposing, with a grand staircase and columns flanking the entrance. These days, McCord houses the computer science department. But the word “engineering” is still etched in stone across the top. 

MILTON CLARK: And there is a picture in that Ebony magazine of mom coming off the steps. Those are the steps she’s coming off of.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: In the photo, YY’s wearing shades. And she looks cool and so completely in control. 

CHARLES FLACK: She was a force, a quiet force, to be reckoned with, although she was probably four 11.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Dr. Charles Flack is one of YY’s former students and mentees. And when he’d see her on campus, he remembers her saying…

CHARLES FLACK: Flack, how you doing today? You doing okay? How’s your studies going? I says, yes, ma’am, it’s going well, Professor Clark.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: YY would usually correct him, telling him she wasn’t yet a full tenured professor. 

CHARLES FLACK: And I says, I’m calling you professor out of respect.

KATIE HAFNER: That is so funny – to say to your student, “Actually, I’m not as important as you think I am” – but obviously, she commanded that kind of respect from her students. 

PEGGY BAKER: Everyone had to take this one, like intro to engineering class. And Ms. Clark was the instructor

KATIE HAFNER: Peggy Baker is a network engineer and a former student of YY’s. YY liked teaching the intro class because it meant she got to meet all the engineering students. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: YY also served as the freshman and junior advisor…and as faculty advisor for the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

KATIE HAFNER: And once YY knew you, she kept tabs… 

PEGGY BAKER: You know, she’d ask me, okay, Baker, what are you doing this summer? I’m like, I haven’t decided. And she goes, okay, so go over to the career placement center and start interviewing. 

KATIE HAFNER: After graduation, Peggy hadn’t yet gotten a job offer and was facing the prospect of having to stay at home. But soon, she got a call. It was YY. 

PEGGY BAKER: She says, okay, I’m gonna need you to come up here. I got an interview for you just come on up.

KATIE HAFNER: Peggy drove up and interviewed for the job – it involved working with nuclear power. And she had some self-doubt…so she told YY.

PEGGY BAKER: I’m like, okay. I know nothing about nuclear power. She says, yeah, you do. You did summer intern with Georgia Power. You know it, smaller scale, you know it. 

KATIE HAFNER: Which is all just to say that YY had real faith in her students, and that faith was well-placed. She knew that developing engineering skills had everything to do with getting practical experience – and she saw to it that her students got that. 

PEGGY BAKER: Confidence is a big thing, and she instilled confidence in us. And, you know, that’s just who she is, who she was.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: YY was the teacher you could turn to for support…her daughter, Carol Lawson, tells us that students would even come to YY with problems in their other courses. 

CAROL LAWSON: Professor Clark. This other teacher is going to flunk me. Can you help? 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And Carol told me that her mom was pretty no-nonsense about it… 

CAROL LAWSON: Whe wasn’t all, baby cakes, they’re being mean to you. Let’s figure out what we can do. Oh, no, no, no. There was no honey, no sugar, no sweet in any of that.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: When students came to her, YY would always ask them the same questions:

CAROL LAWSON: What did you do, or what didn’t you do?

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: She got the students to break the problem down.

CAROL LAWSON: What was the assignment? Well, he said, do, you know, A, B and C. Did you do A, B and C? Well, I did A, B and half of C. Okay. Well, there’s our problem. 

S KEITH HARGROVE: And trust me, uh, YY Clark, she wanted everyone to make an A. 

KATIE HAFNER: Dr. S. Keith Hargrove is another former student of YY’s. YY would start off her intro class by telling all the students they had an A. And she’d make them all repeat it out loud. 

S KEITH HARGROVE: You go as a freshman, you go into class. Wow. I got an A, and I haven’t even done anything, right. But, uh, if you don’t do the work, it’s all downhill after that.

KATIE HAFNER: Keith started out wanting to be a lawyer…

S KEITH HARGROVE: …and then YY Clark said engineering is the career of the future.

KATIE HAFNER: All it took was one conversation with YY and he changed majors. A lot of  students gave YY’s advice a lot of weight. Her office became a kind of haven for students, where they could go to get an honest and clear perspective.  

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: I visited it when I was on campus – it was small, no windows, just cinder blocks. It was hard to imagine that this was the place where all that magic happened. But Keith remembers it being packed with books and tools – a t-square, her papers…

S KEITH HARGROVE: She was always there tutoring, working in the evening to help students with their graphics, with their machine design. She was always available.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: YY’s colleagues remember her leaving campus as late as 9 p.m. and coming back at 7 the next morning.

CAROL LAWSON: She would take me up to TSU, you know, as a child. I was up there all the time.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Carol says that when she was a kid, she didn’t really understand what her mom did… 

CAROL LAWSON: I knew she ran the department and I knew she had a lot of papers. That’s what I knew. And a lot of students. My understanding at that moment was I shared this woman with these people.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And as you might imagine, when she was little, sometimes Carol didn’t want to share her mom. But Carol would set up in the back of a classroom, or sit with a secretary, and TSU’s campus became a kind of extension of home. 

MILTON CLARK: Mom was there when I needed her to be there. Those are the times that count.

KATIE HAFNER: YY’s son Milton is 12 years older than his sister Carol. He remembers his parents dividing up the childcare and the housework – Bill took care of the cooking. YY did the accounts. And Carol had a nanny, Ms. Griggs. Having this kind of support undoubtedly made YY’s long days on campus possible. Milton says sharing YY with her students – well, it never bothered him.

He says his mom was devoted to TSU. 

MILTON CLARK: With TSU being that place that gave her her job, that gave her her roots, that let her start her family…to say she was loyal is an understatement. 

KATIE HAFNER: But it wasn’t just loyalty to the institution – YY had a bigger sense of mission, one that was worth the late nights. She’d joined TSU as the first woman in her department. And she worked hard there to ensure that she wasn’t the last. 

CHARLES FLACK: That’s the most women engineers I’ve ever been around in my life was at Tennessee State.

KATIE HAFNER: That’s Charles again. 

CHARLES FLACK: And I believe that is truly related to professor YY Clark. Cause when I got into the field or in, in the industry, I didn’t see a lot of women engineers, especially women of color.

KATIE HAFNER: TSU had precious few female engineers, too – until YY showed up.

LILIA ABRON: For the most part, Yvonne was the only woman until I got there.

KATIE HAFNER: Starting in 1971, Dr. Lilia Ann Abron was a colleague of YY’s at Tennessee State. 

LILIA ABRON: She always…she had her own style, her own flair.

KATIE HAFNER: Lilia and YY were also neighbors and good friends. And if anything in Lilia’s house needed fixing…

LILIA ABRON: She had her toolbox and she had her slide rule and she had her tape measure. She could repair anything.

KATIE HAFNER: Lilia’s an engineer, too – a chemical engineer, who’s now the founder and CEO of PEER Consultants, an environmental consulting firm. 

Women in science faced a lot of obstacles – especially women of color. And around the time YY and Lilia started working together, that was starting to become apparent to researchers.   

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: In fact, Lilia was one of 30 women invited to a conference focused on the experiences of minority women in the sciences. Over two days, they exchanged ideas and memories, and researchers compiled their findings in a landmark paper called the Double Bind. They found that even when programs existed to support women or minorities pursuing higher degrees…

LILIA ABRON: Programs that were designed for African Americans went to African American men. Programs that were designed to advance women went to white women. And then you had African American and minority women in the double bind. What the hell they gonna do? Because there was nothing for them either way. 

KATIE HAFNER: Case in point: When YY joined the Society of Women Engineers, an organization specifically for women in engineering, she was the only Black woman. 

In Howard University’s mechanical engineering program, a program for Black students, YY was the only woman. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And this makes you think about YY’s firsts. Yes, YY was incredibly brilliant, and came from an ambitious and supportive Black family. She was talented and curious.

But she was also the first so often because of systemic sexism and racism. The reason Black women weren’t already in the field was because of barriers like the Double Bind. 

LILIA ABRON: During that period in time, most of us were firsts.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And Lilia confirms – being the first, especially in academia, wasn’t so much a cause for celebration…

LILIA ABRON: It was something we had to do, something that was very necessary. We’ve always felt that, where possible, education was all the way out. I mean, you got educated because you were trying to move up and to make life better for people coming behind you. So we didn’t dwell on who’s first. We were always pushing each other to just be the best that you could.

KATIE HAFNER: So at least for Lilia, these enormous, groundbreaking academic achievements – as a lived experience – they weren’t about glory. And for YY…

LILIA ABRON: She had no choice but to go to college, I mean, there was no option that, oh, you have to get married. Black families never thought like that, at least the ones I know. No, the woman had to work. I mean, you know, both husband and wife had to work to bring in the income of one white man.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Education meant a higher income, at a time when salary inequality for women and Black Americans was even worse than it is today.

LILIA ABRON: There was never, ever any consideration that Yvonne was gonna get married and not have to work. I mean, that’s just not the way any of us were raised.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: In fact, in 1970, YY took a leave of absence from TSU to get another degree – she’d reached a salary cap at TSU and the higher degree would mean better pay. And yes, YY was the first woman to get a Master’s degree in engineering management from Vanderbilt University.

KATIE HAFNER: And she got another first while she was there. While researching her thesis, she worked at the Ford Motor Company’s glass plant – the same plant that she applied to when she first moved to Nashville, over a decade earlier. Back then, they told her, “we have no use for you.” In 1971, she became the first woman to work as an engineer there. 

So something else to consider in YY’s story, in all these firsts, is that YY’s very motivation to break through boundaries was grounded in practicality. She became the “first lady of engineering” in part because…she had to.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And when she got there – she often found, she wasn’t just the first…she was the only. For a lot longer than she would have liked. The Double Bind and other barriers made it incredibly difficult for other Black women to become engineers. In celebrating YY, it’s so important to remember the oppressive systems that made her the exception.

YVONNE CLARK: 17 years I was a department head. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: That’s YY. While she was department head, she was able to increase the percentage of women in the mechanical engineering program to 25%. 

YVONNE CLARK: …as opposed to none when I got there. I worked at it.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And that meant, by the early 80s, when Charles was a student, his engineering classes always included women.

CHARLES FLACK: And they gravitated to professor Clark. And they… many went to work for NASA and IBM and Western electric…

KATIE HAFNER: In many cases, it was YY who helped make these connections, organizing internships or securing interviews, just like she did for Peggy. 

MILTON CLARK: Mom had, in my opinion, a unique understanding of how the system works. And by system, I mean the way that industry uses credentialing to be a gatekeeper.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: YY knew that recruiting students into engineering wouldn’t mean much if they were locked out of industry because of racism or sexism.

KATIE HAFNER: One important credential for YY was her PE, or professional engineering license. It’s one of the highest credentials an engineer can earn. YY got her PE, and encouraged her students to do the same.

MILTON CLARK: Mom felt that it created a level playing field because once you are credentialed, that’s something that no one can take away from you. And mom utilized her time at TSU to try to get as many students credentialed as she could in her 55 years of teaching.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: YY also continued to use her summers to keep up with the latest developments. Starting in 1984, she became principal investigator on a project at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, studying refrigerants – a role she had for 20 years. 

CHARLES FLACK: She knew that she was always cutting a different path for others to come behind her. And she wanted the others to be highly respected and highly regarded because of the path she cut. You think about the weight she had to bear, but she did it with such style and grace. That’s the beautiful thing about her. And so…um, I wish she was still here that I could talk to her like this.

KATIE HAFNER: After teaching at Tennessee State University for five and half decades, YY retired in 2011 at age 82. She stayed active in many of her organizations – like the Society of Women Engineers and the Deltas – and she continued to call her students regularly on the phone. They’d send her flowers on her birthday. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: But in December of 2018, YY became quite ill. 

CAROL LAWSON: So she got sick right after Christmas.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: YY’s daughter Carol told me about what a difficult time that was. 

CAROL LAWSON: Unfortunately New Years, we were in, she was in the hospital.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: They found fluid in her lungs and did a biopsy. She had cancer.

CAROL LAWSON: And they were like, you know what? That’s, that’s not going to be good. She’s not going to do well long-term, so make your plans.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Carol realized YY didn’t have much time left.

CAROL LAWSON: We were planning on doing a birthday party for her on her, um, birthday, April 13th. Well, this is January and it’s like, we’re not going to have time, so let’s do it now. So I got on the phone to a couple of her students. I said, I’m doing a party in a week. I know. I know. But if you can make it come. They all came. They all came from everywhere.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: YY’s former students were glad to have the chance to tell her what she meant to them. 

CHARLES FLACK: She really had a heart for the students and she did a lot more than any other faculty member in that regards. And, and we felt it, we felt it.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Charles Flack was invited to speak at YY’s funeral.

CHARLES FLACK: And I’m just an electrical engineer. I wasn’t a mechanical engineering student, but she thought something of Flack. And she thought something, enough of me to just call me. Um, and to, uh, let me know she cared. And you don’t find that in a lot of schools.

KATIE HAFNER: Coming up, how historically Black colleges and universities came to be, and why they’re so successful at producing STEM graduates.

CHERYL TALLEY: You can’t really separate HBCUs and their formation without discussing racial segregation and legalized apartheid that existed in the United States.

[AD BREAK]

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: You know, Spelman, like many other historically Black colleges and universities, came about after emancipation.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell is the former president of Spelman College, a private women’s HBCU in Atlanta. When Spelman was founded…

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: There were no schools whatsoever for Black women. And so at the outset, the women who came to Spelman college came to read and write. Because those fundamental skills were denied them during slavery. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: HBCUs became centers of Black education and culture. And for many Black students, including YY and her family members, they were places where they could pursue professional degrees.

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: By the 1930s, our women were aspiring to become doctors and lawyers and the professions that are available everywhere. And it was after the civil rights movement, really when there was a very conscious and concerted effort to really focus on science.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Today, HBCUs make up three percent of colleges and universities in the US… but 25% of all Black STEM graduates come from HBCUs. 

And Spelman is the country’s leading producer of black women who complete PhDs in science, technology, engineering, and math.

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: It’s a statistic that the college is very proud of. They intentionally and deliberately sought to be the leading producer of black women scientists. And it’s a statistic that is upheld by a number of practices that the college has developed, honed and refined.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Practices like these have been extremely successful across HBCUs – so much so, they’re being studied. 

CHERYL TALLEY: My name is Cheryl Talley. I am a professor of psychology at Virginia State University. I do research in academic interventions.

KATIE HAFNER: Dr. Cheryl Talley is the research director for the HBCU STEM Undergraduate Success Research Center, or STEM-US. The center was founded to understand what makes HBCUs so good at preparing Black STEM graduates. It’s a collaboration among Morehouse College, Spelman College and Virginia State. 

CHERYL TALLEY: I surveyed all kinds of academic interventions in STEM seeking what is it that they had in common? 

KATIE HAFNER: She found that the most successful interventions are ones where incoming students are brought to campus before classes start, so-called “bridge programs.” Students might take a specialized class or conduct research. But why are these bridge programs so effective?

CHERYL TALLEY: My question was, is it the resources that you’re providing? Or is it the relationships that have been formed? So we hypothesized that it was the relationships. And so we created relationships with near peer mentors.

KATIE HAFNER: In Cheryl’s study, freshmen were mentored by juniors and seniors.  

CHERYL TALLEY: And those students they become a group, a cohort.

KATIE HAFNER: The freshmen got guidance and support – and the older students took the responsibility seriously. 

CHERYL TALLEY: And I believe that that is what happens writ large with these STEM students: the relationships last. They become very serious. This works.

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: We call it the sisterhood at Spelman. But it’s another way of saying that you have a group of peers, a cohort. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: That’s Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell again. Spelman is one HBCU that’s recognized the importance of cohorts, particularly in the sciences, because…

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: The practice of science is also a collaborative practice.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: So when you work in cohorts… 

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: You’re beginning to understand how science gets done. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Mary tells us that Spelman understands that science is about collective, hands-on efforts – and they teach it that way.

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: We always look for some opportunity for you to put that into practice. That might be a research lab. That might be a co-publication with your faculty member. That’s where so many students really come alive to the excitement of doing science.

KATIE HAFNER: Cheryl’s research confirms this – science education is about more than teaching science… 

CHERYL TALLEY: Part of what happens at an HBCU, I believe, is that faculty practice two curricula: there is the STEM curriculum that we’re all trained to do in graduate school. And then there is the second curriculum that is focused on the needs of the student, and not just the academic needs, but the social needs, the personal needs, the psychological needs…

KATIE HAFNER: According to Cheryl, the second curriculum is key: faculty create a nurturing environment. 

CHERYL TALLEY: We understand that we are responsible for these young people. We teach as a part of our mission. 

KATIE HAFNER: That mission, and all the practices that support it – the second curriculum, the emphasis on cohorts and mentorship – that all really grows out of the history of these schools.

See, when you talk about HBCUs…

CHERYL TALLEY: …you’re stepping into a longstanding conversation that began with why there was the need to create a separate set of institutions.

KATIE HAFNER: That need was created by exclusion and anti-Black racism. From their founding, through the period of segregation prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and into the present, HBCUs haven’t only served as educational institutions; they’ve been havens for Black Americans. 

CHERYL TALLEY: In the United States, HBCUs turned out to be a gift that came out of that horrible situation. 

KATIE HAFNER: HBCUs are not segregated institutions – they welcome and educate all students. But at an HBCU, Black students can expect to be taught by many Black teachers, who understand the toll of racism and that identity is very relevant to education. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Research has shown that when Black students have Black teachers, those students have better educational outcomes. But a new study found that all teachers trained at HBCUs – both Black and white – improved Black students’ math scores. So it seems like when it comes to supporting Black students, it’s not just about the identity of the teacher – it’s about their training.

But it’s not totally clear what about their training makes them better teachers to Black students.

What Cheryl and her research team are aiming to do today is identify and share these effective practices. And not just at HBCUs – but everywhere.

CHERYL TALLEY: So this is the purpose of the HBCU undergraduate success research center: how then can it be replicated and scaled? 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: To do that, Cheryl needs to understand what she’s up against in the education system. So that’s another part of Cheryl’s research: looking at how systemic racism and inequality persist.

CHERYL TALLEY: Where you live can dictate how much preparation you have to even enter college with a STEM aspiration.

KATIE HAFNER: In the United States, a student’s zip code can determine a lot about their educational experience. And given the history of segregated housing in this country, those zip codes often mean segregated school districts. A report by the US Government Accountability Office found that in the 2020-2021 school year, more than a third of US students attended a school where at least 75% of students identified as a single race or ethnicity.

And another report found that nationally, predominantly white school districts get $23 billion more in funding than nonwhite districts.

Many of the students starting college at an HBCU come from underfunded and underserved schools. And of course, that affects how prepared they are for college.

CHERYL TALLEY: The lived experience for African-Americans is very different in the United States. And so when you talk about education, often, it is assumed that you graduated from high school and you should have a certain level of proficiency. But we find that students who want to major in STEM, if your high school is under-resourced, then it’s very likely that you were not prepared for the rigors of a STEM degree. And oftentimes you’re not really prepared for the rigors of college.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: The approach at HBCUs recognizes the distinction between preparedness and potential; many students arrive at college unprepared, but extremely capable. 

Cheryl tells us that HBCUs represent seven of the top eight institutions that graduate the highest number of Black undergraduate students who go on to earn science and engineering doctorates.

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: Now we are, are really focusing on making sure that close to a hundred percent of our students have some placement when they leave Spelman.

KATIE HAFNER: Funding continues to be the biggest obstacle for HBCUs. A 2019 report by the UNCF found that HBCU endowments lag behind non-HBCU endowments by 70%.

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: You know, about 48% somewhere between 45, 48% of our students are Pell eligible. So that means the annual family income is about $50,000.

KATIE HAFNER: Though on average, the tuition at an HBCU is lower than at a non-HBCU, students still face financial barriers. 

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: And, you know, as I talk to potential funders and they get excited about funding, this, that, or another thing, I said, and don’t forget scholarships. It is fundamental to what we need.

KATIE HAFNER: What’s clear is that HBCU faculty are extraordinarily committed to their students and their mission. 

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: What we have discovered as we recruit faculty is that there are those who say, I want a purpose driven life. I can become a catalyst for literally hundreds of other students, and that’s a powerful motivator for many, many people.

S KEITH HARGROVE: I was taking a course in heating ventilation and air conditioning, and I was sitting, like, midway into class and it just hit me like, like a bolt of lightning: I want to be a college professor. I want to be like YY Clark.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: That’s Dr. S. Keith Hargrove again. 

He went on to earn his Master’s of Science at Missouri University of Science and Technology, and his Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. And he actually got to return to TSU and became the Dean of Engineering. He went from being YY’s student, to being her colleague.

S KEITH HARGROVE: It was very humbling to return back to TSU to serve in the leadership role of the college of engineering, the very program that produced me. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: For Keith, going to an HBCU like Tennessee State was transformative.

S KEITH HARGROVE: Tennessee State allowed me to unleash my unknown potential. You know, there is no way, to be honest with you, I could have got through differential equations and calculus one, two, three and four without dedicated faculty helping me get through that.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Today, Keith is a provost at Tuskegee University, another historically Black university.

S KEITH HARGROVE: And one of the things I’ve always said, even to these kids, I say, you don’t have to be a genius in math to be an engineer. That, that is one of the biggest misconceptions that’s out there.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Keith tells his students that it’s really about work ethic and having a strong support system – that “second” curriculum Cheryl was telling us about. He credits his own education at an HBCU for seeing the importance in that.

YY especially was a mentor to him.

S KEITH HARGROVE: You hold on to those memories, just like your own family, right? And they live within you. They make you a better person. They make you a better human being. And I, I’d like to believe that YY is proud of the career that I’ve chosen to be just like her.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: We asked Keith how he thought TSU could best commemorate YY.

S KEITH HARGROVE: I would like to see the college of engineering tagged or labeled for her. She’s known as the first lady of engineering, so, in my mind, her name would be extremely appropriate.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: The best teachers leave a lasting impression on students. This in itself is a kind of legacy. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: YY does have a scholarship in her name at TSU for students who intend to study engineering.

S KEITH HARGROVE: She lives in hundreds of students like myself in terms of their own career. You know, that’s, that’s gonna go a much longer time than a name and a title.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: To Keith, YY is already remembered in the most effective way: through the lives and actions of her students – as teachers are often remembered. In this sense, YY’s legacy is immense, and living. And she crafted it herself.

YVONNE CLARK: Back at Howard, I had a professor at Howard and he said, whatever you do, when you get where you’re going and drop anchor, give back to the community.

KATIE HAFNER: It would be easy in some ways to think of YY’s time as a teacher as a kind of footnote to her quote “real work,” as if her contributions were limited to those few summers she spent at NASA. And after all, it was one of her three nevers: never become a teacher. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: But when I asked Carol Lawson which accomplishments her mom considered most significant, she said…

CAROL LAWSON: From her perspective, I would say it’d be the teaching, hands down. 

KATIE HAFNER: Student by student, engineer by engineer, YY transformed her field. And she didn’t do that just by being the first – she did it by educating and inspiring and nurturing the next. Those accomplishments are inseparable.

CAROL LAWSON: The impact that she made on moving the opportunities forward for female engineers specifically, and Black female engineers specifically, I think that’s huge.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Both Carol and her brother Milton have made amazing efforts to preserve their mom’s story.

KATIE HAFNER: They’ve safeguarded her legacy with love and admiration.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: And we’ve relied on the work they’ve done to share it now with you. When you’ve heard from YY during this season, most of that tape came from a StoryCorps interview she recorded with Carol in 2007, when she was 78. In that interview, Carol gave her mom the last word – and we’d like to do that, too.

YVONNE CLARK: Don’t take no for an answer if you feel you’re qualified. Keep your respect. Respect others. And just don’t give up. That’s about it.

[CREDITS]

KATIE HAFNER: This has been Lost Women of Science. Thanks to everyone who made this initiative happen, including our co-executive producer Amy Scharf, producer Ashraya Gupta, senior editor Nora Mathison, associate producer Sinduja Srinivasan, composer Elizabeth Younan, and the engineers at Studio D Podcast Production. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Thank you to Milton H. Clark, Sr. Much of this story comes from his book, Six Degrees of Freedom.

KATIE HAFNER: We’re grateful to Mike Fung, Cathie Bennett Warner, Dominique Guilford, Jeff DelViscio, Maria Klawe, Michelle Nijhuis, Susan Kare, Jeannie Stivers, Carol Lawson, and our interns, Hilda Gitchell and Hannah Carroll. Thanks also to Paula Goodwin, Nicole Searing and the rest of the legal team at Perkins Coie. Many thanks to Barnard College, a leader in empowering young women to pursue their passion in STEM.

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: Thank you to Tennessee State University, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the University of Louisville, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville for helping us with our search. 

KATIE HAFNER: Lost Women of Science is funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation, which catalyzes conversations about living purposeful and meaningful lives. 

This podcast is distributed by PRX and published in partnership with Scientific American.

You can learn more about our initiative at lostwomenofscience.org or follow us on Twitter and Instagram. Find us @lostwomenofsci. That’s lost women of S C I.

Thank you so much for listening. 

CAROL SUTTON LEWIS: I’m Carol Sutton Lewis.

KATIE HAFNER: And I’m Katie

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