By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent
ATLANTA (NNPA)—After attending a prestigious, predominantly White private school, Ty’Quish Keyes yearned for a new cultural and educational experience. Keyes mother pushed him to excel in school and his community because she knew that college was the best way out of their crime-ridden North Philadelphia neighborhood, that held few opportunities for young, black men.
In 2011, Keyes visited Morehouse College and found students and faculty who supported black excellence and self-motivated, young black men. It was a perfect fit for Keyes.
“I was visiting a whole bunch of schools and when I came to Morehouse, I realized that there was a lot I of things I didn’t know about African Americans, my culture and my history,” said Philadelphia teen. Keyes saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Chapel for the first time, learned about Malcolm X and about the sacrifices and the perseverance of the Freedom Riders; the richness and success of blacks in American history, had been largely invisible in the curriculum at his high school. He was one of just a handful of Black students in his graduating class. “When I came to [Atlanta] it was shocking.”
Keyes earned enough scholarships to pay for his first fall semester at Morehouse College, but when his mother applied for a loan to help cover tuition and expenses for the spring semester of his freshmen year, she was denied. During the first weeks of the spring 2012 semester, Keyes scrambled to find scholarships and raise enough money to continue at Morehouse. He watched as some of his classmates in similar financial straits were forced to abandon their college dreams, and the North Philadelphia native wondered if he would be next.
“I was freaking out,” said Keyes, recalling those nerve-racking hours, weighing whether to study for tests or complete assignments for classes, unsure if he would make it to the next week.
Keyes learned about the Buick Achievers Scholarship Program through connections at Morehouse College and applied, thinking that he had nothing lose. It was a decision that saved his Morehouse College dream and quite possibly his professional career. Keyes, now a junior with a dual major in applied physics and mechanical engineering and a minor in mathematics, won the scholarship and it helped to cover the cost for his sophomore and junior years at Morehouse.
Under the program, students are eligible to receive up to $25,000 per year to attend a four-year college. Every year the scholarships are awarded to 100 first-time freshman or existing college students and is renewable up to four years and one additional year for those entering a qualified five-year engineering program, according to program’s website, BuickAchievers.com.
To qualify, applicants must also plan to pursue STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programs or a select number of design or business-related courses of study.
College majors available for the Buick Achievers scholarship include: automotive technology, chemical engineering, computer engineering, computer information systems, mechanical engineering, automotive design, accounting economics, international business and business administration. The full list of eligible majors can be found at www.BuickAchievers.com.
The scholarship award process also gives special consideration to applicants who are the first in their family to attend college, minorities and veterans.
“One of the unique things that we have done with the Buick Achievers scholarship program is that we have a component built in where we give extra points to individuals who are the first in their families to attend college,” said Vivian Rogers Pickard, president of the General Motors Foundation and director of Corporate Relations at GM. “We know that it impacts the African American and Hispanic communities. So we know that we are making a difference in the lives of families in those communities and really in our country.”
The funds for the scholarship come from the GM Foundation, not the General Motors Company, according to the scholarship website.
Karen Nicklin, the manager of educational initiatives for the GM Foundation and Corporate Relations, said 3,300 students have received $16.5 million to make their educational dreams come true. The Buick Achievers Scholarship Program has awarded $4.7 million to nearly 450 Black students, nearly half of them the first in their family to go to college.
Black students account for 20 percent of the scholarship applicants and 14 percent of the students who receive scholarships through the program, meaning that 70 percent of black students who apply are accepted. Nicklin said that the scholarship program would be even more successful if more black students were aware it existed.
“Some of these kids couldn’t even have afforded to go to college, now they are at a Morehouse or a Spelman or a Tuskegee. That’s life changing,” said Nicklin. “Hopefully, that exposure changes the beliefs of their families and other members of their communities so that they also believe that they can do it.”
Nicklin said that ensuring a sustainable STEM pipeline for future workers is critical for companies like General Motors.
As the nation’s workforce grows more diverse, investments in education and job development in the Black and Hispanic communities will become even more essential.
According to a 2013 report on the disparities in STEM employment by the United States Census Bureau, blacks and Hispanics continue to lag behind their white counterparts in those fields.
The report found that in 2011, blacks accounted for 11 percent of the labor force, but only six percent of STEM workers. Whites represented 67 percent of the labor force and 71 percent of the STEM workers.
“We want to help create that next generation of innovators and leaders,” said Nicklin. “We have to cultivate and inspire them to reach out for that education.”
According to a 2013 report by the National Center for Education Statistics a federal agency that collects, organizes and reports data related to education, the nearly 30 percent of blacks who started a bachelor’s program in a STEM field left school without earning a degree and “36 percent switched their major to a non-STEM field.” In comparison, roughly 20 percent of Whites who began a bachelors program in a STEM field left without obtaining a degree and about 28 percent switched to a non-STEM major.
Students, who are often underrepresented in STEM fields leave for myriad reasons.
“Such factors include inadequate academic advising, career counseling, and institution support; feelings of isolation in STEM fields because too few peers pursue STEM degrees and too few role models and mentors are available (mainly pertinent to females and underrepresented minorities); distaste for the competitive climate in STEM departments (women especially); and perceived discrimination on the basis of sex and/or race/ethnicity in the STEM workforce,” stated the report.
STEM careers are some of the highest paid jobs in country for people with only a bachelor’s degree. According to PayScale.com, the online salary profile database starting salaries can range from $103,000 for a petroleum engineer to $54,000 for a civil engineer.
Keyes said that highlighting Black students who are Buick Achievers who also attend HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) can help raise the profile of the scholarship program.
Michael L. Lomax, the president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, the nation’s largest provider of scholarships and other educational support to African American students enrolled in private, HBCUs, said that General Motors has been supporting UNCF for 70 years.
Lomax continued: “It’s really important that what we’re doing now is helping African American talent understand where the big opportunities and big challenges are,” said Lomax. “We want to see more of our graduates designing the automobiles, and the systems that drive the automobiles and the only way that is going to happen is if they are pursuing STEM degrees.”