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Harvard Black engineering organization participates in national convention

A large group of Harvard students in front of a sign for the National Society of Black Engineers national convention

The Harvard Society of Black Scientists and Engineers at the National Society of Black Engineers national convention in Atlanta.

Despite serving on the board as freshman representatives, Tami Kabiawu and Onovughakpor Otitigbe Dangerfield weren’t among the Harvard Society of Black Scientists and Engineers (HSBSE) who attended the national convention in 2022. They were freshmen, and at the time the club focused on only bringing upperclassmen. When they did get to go the following year, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) national convention proved to be an eye-opening experience.

“It’s this big gathering of thousands of young Black people that are interested in STEM,” said Kabiawu, HSBSE president and third-year computer science concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “We’re all like-minded, and everybody’s really friendly and nice. It feels really welcoming to be in that atmosphere, invigorating and exciting. You know that you’re not the only person doing it. Going from school to a convention where there are so many young Black people that are interested in the same things you want to do career-wise is something that I think a lot of Black students have never gotten.”

Kabiawu and club vice president Otitigbe Dangerfield were among the 20 HSBSE members who recently returned from the 50th NSBE National Convention in Atlanta. With funding from the SEAS Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, HSBSE was able to double its attendance from last year. The national convention not only connects Black students studying STEM from all over the nation but can also open doors to summer internships and job opportunities.

“I went with an idea of what my summer plans were, but they were more flexible,” said Otitigbe Dangerfield, who’s pursuing an A.B./S.M. in biomedical engineering at SEAS while dual-concentrating in the History of Science. “I went with the idea that if an interesting internship offer came, I’d pursue it. Over the course of the conference, I got four interviews, which turned into three offers and a possible fourth.”

With 20 open spots, HSBSE was able to bring a range of students to the national convention. That included first-year representatives along with the rest of the leadership board, as well as students representing every class year and many concentrations. Students were selected after filling out an interest form in November.

“You could see the impact of including them, helping them develop connections with upperclassmen, and letting them see their future in the organization,” Otitigbe Dangerfield said. “They were able to realize that even if they didn’t get internships that year, it was something to work towards.”

Like many student organizations, HSBSE’s membership dropped during the 2021-22 school year, as pandemic-related restrictions prevented large in-person student gatherings. But once the club resumed regular in-person events, the SEAS-affiliated club has continued to grow, from approximately 200 members last year to 240 this year. HSBSE was also named Student Organization of the Year by the Harvard Dean of Students Office in 2023.

“Our first year, we didn’t hold too many events, and our elections maybe had 20-30 people,” Kabiawu said. “The elections last year had over 100 people. We have regular attendance of 60 people or more. For our career fair this year we had 101 attendees, which was the highest the Mignone Center for Career Success had reached all year.”

The benefits of being in HSBSE mirror the benefits of attending the national convention. Studies have shown Black students receive less than 5 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees awarded from U.S. institutions, but attending HSBSE events or the NSBE national convention can help foster a critical sense of community. The club also offers preprofessional development opportunities, career fairs and sponsored events to help members not only feel connected in school, but also become successful Black STEM professionals in the future.

“It is significantly harder to be a Black student in STEM,” Otitigbe Dangerfield said. “The NSBE conference creates a world where our Blackness is an asset in the professional world, and HSBSE offers that space to students as well. There’s no other place that really allows us to unapologetically be Black people in STEM, so it’s the greatest way for our students to feel supported.”

Kabiawu added, “HSBSE is the perfect balance between a social organization where you can have a lot of fun, and a preprofessional organization where you gain career skills and build yourself up. At the preprofessional events, you’re having so much fun, and the NSBE conference is the perfect representation of that.”

Topics: Diversity / Inclusion, Student Organizations

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