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Big Ideas: Supporting Diversity through ActionMay 31, 2018

Helping Students Build Strong Organizations

Any good engineer knows the value of a foundation. Even the loftiest visions and most ambitious dreams will tend to crumble without a solid base beneath them.

So when Chemical Engineering associate professor Thomas A. Adams II was approached to help students launch a McMaster chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), he knew the most useful thing he could do was assist them with good groundwork.

In his first year at McMaster in 2010, Adams advised a student on a research project that ended up winning a competition at a NSBE conference south of the border. That led to the request to help get NSBE Mac off the ground.

“It was interesting for the obvious reason that I’m not black,” admits Adams.

But what he did bring to the role was a wealth of experience in community building. As well as launching a number of clubs in university, Adams established a non-profit soccer league in a Philadelphia housing project while completing his PhD.

So with an eye to the importance of getting the basics right, he helped the McMaster chapter write a mission statement, get the necessary approvals and establish itself electronically.

“It was mostly helping out developing the very boring, behind-the-scenes stuff,” he says.

But he also encouraged them to think about the crucial issue of sustainability: how to scout out the next generation of leaders, how to build momentum to keep the organization going, how to pass along lessons of success and failure.

“My job has been mainly in leadership development and in mentorship,” Adams says.

And while Adams provides institutional memory and continuity to the group, he says it’s the students who bring the fresh perspectives, ideas and enthusiasm vital to keeping the organization vibrant.

“As I look back at all the different presidents and all the things the club has done, every year they get bigger, they do more things, they are better known and their members have a higher and higher impact.”

Activities have included tutoring high school students, organizing an annual job fair event and travelling to NSBE conferences in the United States.

In everything they do, the students increase the visibility of black people excelling in engineering, says Adams.

“That’s really been the main mission and I think that has been a real success. They are disproportionately excellent, the people who lead this organization, and they inspire and raise up everyone they work with.

“It’s been a real privilege for me to be part of that.”