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History MEP

A HISTORY OF THE CALIFORNIA MEP By

Raymond B. Landis

 

Part I

MEP had its early beginnings in late fall, 1968 when, as a young engineering faculty member at CSU Northridge, I received a memorandum from the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) asking whether I would be willing to serve as close advisor and mentor to one of the EOP students who had declared engineering as a major. EOP was then a brand new program, having just brought its first group of 150 Black and 150 Hispanic students to the campus. I responded that I would and received the names and telephone numbers of three students. I met with each one individually and found that all three were failing most of their courses. I was studying for my Ph.D. at UCLA at the time, which meant that I was working virtually day and night, seven days a week. So I had the students come in at night and on weekends and study together across the hall from my office. I helped them when they had difficulty and talked to them about how to be an effective student. One soon left the university, but I was able to help the other two get on track. One of those changed his major to pre-med and I lost contact with him, but the other went through to graduation and has had a successful career as an engineer with Southern California Edison Company.

The experience of working with these students had a profound effect on me. It showed me that there were students who had the capability to succeed in engineering study but would fail-primarily because there was a mismatch between what they needed and what their educational environment provided. I decided then that when I finished my Ph.D. I would attempt to build an educational environment within a predominantly white engineering school that would work for minority students.

As it turned out, it was almost five years before everything came together and MEP as we know it today was born. Several fortuitous circumstances pushed me onward. In 1969, Peter Likins, then a UCLA engineering professor, now president of the University of Arizona, conducted an essay contest on the subject "Should engineering schools establish special programs to recruit and retain minority students?" This was a very forward-thinking topic for 1969, but then Peter Likins is a very special person. Because of my work with the EOP students, I entered the contest, won, and my essay was published in a national journal. All of a sudden I was being contacted as though I were an expert. I decided I'd better become one.

One of the people who read the essay and contacted me was Al Richardson. Al was without a doubt the most committed person I have ever met. Al was the co-founder of the Los Angeles Council of Black Professional Engineers and served as its president during its early, formative years. He was a practicing civil engineer, although he had never completed his engineering degree, probably one of the reasons he was so dedicated to ensuring that others had the opportunity and were successful. In the early years of MEP, Al would literally telephone every one of the students at least once a week to see how they were doing. Al passed away several years ago and almost everyone who spoke at his memorial service said that when their phone rang at 3 a.m. they knew it was Al. He never stopped working for the cause. Because of my essay, Al decided that all of the engineering schools in Southern California should establish retention programs for minority students, and he offered to recruit students for any school that did. His encouragement was a major factor in my decision to start MEP in fall, 1973.

Another push came from the ascendancy of Keith Bass to the position of EOP Director at CSU Northridge. In the first group of 300 EOP students, who entered before the EOP program was fully up and running, 15 chose engineering as their major. Once the EOP program had a staff on board and put an advising system in place, students were advised not to major in engineering because "it was too hard." As a consequence, for the next five years not one entering EOP student declared an engineering major. Ironically, one of the original 15 engineering majors, Keith Bass, who had worked for EOP as a student, became EOP Director soon after his graduation in engineering. Keith felt very strongly that minority students should pursue professional fields of study like engineering and believed that they could succeed. Starting MEP in 1973 would have been virtually impossible without Keith's help.

Another event boosted my commitment enormously. In early spring 1973, I had already begun to recruit a group of students to form the first freshman class of the new MEP program when I learned that a national symposium on minority engineering education was going to be held in May in Washington, D.C. The Symposium on Minorities in Engineering was sponsored by the National Academy of Engineering to kick-off a national effort "to increase the representation of minorities in engineering by ten-fold in the next decade." What a thrill it was for me to go to Washington and spend three days with 500 people from all over the nation. We were there to build a commitment to the very thing I was setting out to do. The timing was perfect. I came home with fire in my eyes. I was part of a national movement. Nothing would stop me now!

 

Part II

Looking back, I think the reason I knew how to create an educational environment that would work for minority students stems from my early college days at MIT. I was the beneficiary of an excellent educational environment-in fact, a privileged environment-one in which it would have been difficult to fail.

When I entered MIT in 1957 as a 17-year-old freshman away from home for the first time, I joined a fraternity and moved into a house with 37 other students. Twelve of us were freshmen, all taking the same courses: calculus, chemistry, physics, humanities, and an elective. I had wonderful peer support. As "new kids on the block," the twelve of us were a team! Whether intentionally or not, MIT helped to promote group study by having common exams for freshmen-every Friday at noon. One week was calculus, the next physics, the next chemistry, then humanities. All 900 freshmen, including the twelve of us, were always preparing for the same exam.

The upperclass students with whom we lived were very much invested in our academic success for two very practical reasons. First, most of the costs of running the fraternity were fixed-rent, staff salaries, utilities-and our monthly house bill was computed by dividing the total cost by 38. If one of us dropped out or flunked out, everyone's house bill went up. Second, the MIT administration kept track of the average GPA of each fraternity on campus and if one dropped, the leadership of the house was called on the carpet. So the upperclass students were very interested in our success, and lots of mechanisms were in place to ensure that we did succeed. We each had a big brother who was held responsible for our performance. Since each upperclass student was required to have a "bible" of notes, tests, homework, and lab reports for every course he had taken, we had access to 26 sets of materials on each course we were taking. There was no shortage of tutoring. The house was full of "experts" who were willing to show off their knowledge in the subjects we were taking. Quiet hours were enforced and if it was felt that one of us was not taking his academics seriously, he would be called in for a "heart-to-heart" talk with several upperclass students.

It was no accident that when I decided to set about building an educational environment for minority engineering students, I concentrated on two objectives. The first was to build a strong peer group-a group of students who were all taking the same courses, doing the same homework, and preparing for the same tests-a group working together and socializing together. The second objective was to provide strong support from role models, whether upperclass students or faculty¾people who had already traveled the road and who were invested in and cared about the students' success.

This is the background from which I contemplated the arrival of the group of 20 new minority engineering freshmen in the fall of 1973. My first priority was to have regular contact with them both to build them into a supportive group and to teach them how to be effective as students. So I created a special orientation course, which, to this day, all MEP freshmen take. My second concern was that only if the students were taking the same classes and therefore doing the same homework assignments and preparing for the same tests would the group have a basis for studying together. So I selected the best available teachers and arranged for the students to enroll in the same sections of their courses. Finally, I thought that the group needed a place-a home base of operation. I got some book lockers being cast off by the library, put them in the "study center," and assigned one to each student. Having a place to keep their books ensured that the students would come there between classes.

These three structural elements-an orientation course, a system for clustering students in common sections of their classes, and a study center-were and still are the heart of a successful MEP. I am often asked how to start an MEP and how long it takes before it will work. My response is that if you identify a group of freshman students and cluster them in common sections of their classes, set up an orientation course to build them into a supportive group, and provide them with a student study center, an MEP will work from day one.

And, so it was in fall, 1973. MEP was the 20 students and I. I saw virtually every student daily in my office. We were like a family. None of us had any idea that what we were starting would grow into what MEP is today.

 

Part III

From its inception in 1973, the CSU Northridge MEP prospered. The size of each year's new freshman class grew by leaps and bounds. And not only did the numbers of students increase, but their quality in terms of both background and capability improved steadily. The services provided to the students also expanded. Under the umbrella of MEP, student organizations developed and prospered. Academic support mechanisms evolved and personal and professional development activities were put into place. And we got better and better in building the students into a supportive, academic community.

As the quality of incoming students improved and the quality of the environment they came into improved, an interesting phenomenon occurred. We transitioned from a "failure environment" to a "success environment." Of the students in the first few freshmen classes, only about one out of four was successful and graduated. When you have an environment in which three out of four students are failing, it feels like failure. And when a new student comes into a failure environment, it is easy for them to justify failure. Failure is contagious! We knew we had to turn this around both by improving the quality of the students coming in and by improving the effectiveness of the program. Within a few years, we had turned things around. Three out of four students were making it. We had created a success environment!

Resources begin to come in, at first from industry, later from the University. Kay Kiddoo of Lockheed arranged the first corporate contribution to MEP, in spring, 1974. It was $1,000, but I thought it was $1,000,000. I used it to hire several of the upper division minority engineering students to work as tutors in the study center. Another check for $1,000 came from the Carnation Company Foundation. Industry helped immensely in another way. I was able to place every one of the twenty students in the first freshman class in a summer job in industry. What a great experience for them. I wish that today we could place 100 percent of MEP freshmen in engineering-related summer jobs.

Thirty-six new students entered in fall, 1974. I was beginning to feel a desperate need for some staff, but I had no resources. Miraculously, I learned about the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA), a new Federal job program. Through CETA, I was able to get a full-time clerical position and a full-time professional staff position for MEP. Sometimes I wonder if I would have ever gotten MEP off the ground without the support of CETA. I had two full-time staff for three years at no cost. With that staff support, I was able to raise sufficient resources to keep the positions going after the CETA program ended.

In spring, 1975, Rick Ainsworth came on board as MEP Associate Director. Rick deserves a great deal of the credit for the development of the CSU Northridge MEP. Rick was a very effective recruiter, and the quality of the MEP environment was greatly enhanced by the many high potential students he attracted into the program. Rick also became very effective in working to build the MEP freshmen into a strong community. He became CSU Northridge MEP director in 1983 and later left CSU Northridge to become MEP director at UCLA.

Right from the beginning we established a student organization. At first it was called the Minority Engineering and Computer Science Enhancement Organization (MECSO) and included all MEP students, both Black and Hispanic. Jackie Penn was president of MECSO for the first few years. In fact he may have been the only president of MECSO because within a few years the students chose to split into separate Black and Hispanic organizations. Student organizations are a real "win-win" for an MEP. What could be better than the students themselves working to enhance their educational environment and at the same time they develop their leadership and organizational skills. A good advisor is generally needed. Students typically lack the skills and experience to build an effective organization. They need to be taught how to set objectives and how to establish a committee structure to get things done.

If there is one key factor in MEP's success, it is the year-long orientation course for MEP freshmen-"Engineering 100" is what we called it. How do I know that this class was so important? It's easy. Over the years we would frequently put together a panel of junior and senior MEP students to tell industry groups, faculty groups, and student groups about MEP. We always followed the same format. We asked each of the panel members to relate the two things about MEP that had been of the most benefit to them and why. "Engineering 100" was always one of the two. I never ceased to be amazed at how predictable that was. The reason? From the day MEP freshmen arrived at the university, they were part of a group-a "fraternity" if you like. Even better than a fraternity because all the members of the "MEP fraternity" were of similar age and background and they were pursuing the same academic goals. The reason for coming together was academic, not social. But the social needs were met. I often asked MEP freshmen mid-way through the first term "Who are your best friends?" I didn't want to hear someone from high school or someone they met in the dormitory who was majoring in P.E. I wanted to hear that their best friends were other MEP students. And lifelong relationships were built. Some time ago I went to the wedding of one of the more popular MEP alums that had been out of school five years and counted twenty-five MEP alums there. How many engineers five years after being out of college would have twenty-five of their engineering classmates at their wedding? This is MEP!

I don't know whether it was luck or skill, but over the years the MEP program at CSU Northridge had a remarkable staff. After Rick Ainsworth, Mike Macias was the next to join us. Mike's wife and my wife played on the same woman's soccer team. What a break! Mike and I used to talk on the sidelines and I learned that he wanted to dedicate his life to encouraging minority students to become engineers. We persuaded his employer Hughes Aircraft Company to loan him to MEP. The match was so perfect that he soon joined the engineering faculty and has been at CSU Northridge ever since. Mike not only made immense contributions to minority engineering education at CSU Northridge, but he worked for a number of years as a field representative for the New York based National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME).

After Mike came Richard Ortega. We knew Richard because his brother George was an MEP student. We worked long and hard to put together the resources to bring Richard on our staff. Richard was too good to be true. Hardworking, committed, and effective, Richard had a strong mathematics background as well. Richard left to start the MEP program at CSU Sacramento and served as its first director. He's currently Director for Development for the School of Medicine at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Another who made his mark on MEP was Chenits Pettigrew. Chenits left the University of Pittsburgh to come west in support of his wife Dela's medical career. He brought a wealth of student affairs experience and an extremely positive outlook to MEP. Chenits went on to get his Ph.D. at Pepperdine University and became Vice President for Student Affairs at Tuskegee University. Chenits is currently working in student affairs for the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh.

And there was Milton Randle who went on to be the first MEP director and later Associate Dean of Student Based Service at CSU Long Beach and did a marvelous job for many years as my MEP director at Cal State L.A.

All those mentioned contributed mightily to the development of MEP and then moved on to make even greater contributions at other institutions.

I would be remiss is I didn't mention several others who had significant impact on MEP. Rod Garcia almost single-handedly founded the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). I don't think Rod gets even a fraction of the credit he deserves. In the early days, he went everywhere and represented SHPE as a "national" organization, even though he knew it was he and several other Hispanic engineers that worked for the Bureau of Engineering of the City of Los Angeles. Talk about a vision! Rod had it, and he made it come true. Rod made student organizations a key part of the structure of SHPE. He knew that building strong "farm clubs" was the way to have a championship team.

By 1974, Bob Finnell was on the scene. Bob was the Deputy Director of the Committee on Minorities in Engineering (CME) located in Washington, D.C. CME was one of the outgrowths of the May 1973 Symposium on Increasing the Representation of Minorities in Engineering and eventually became merged into what is now NACME. Although based in Washington, D.C., Bob spent a great deal of time in the Southwest and was a great friend and inspiration in the early days.

MEP at Northridge continued to grow. Fifty-five new students entered in 1975, sixty-six in 1976, and since 1977 approximately seventy-five new freshmen have been brought in each year. The total number of students in the program reached 450. The number of graduates grew from two in 1978 to forty annually. Industry support for the program increased steadily to about $100,000 per year from thirty corporate sponsors. Consistent early supporters included TRW, Lockheed, Rockwell, Hughes, Mobil Oil, and Exxon, USA.

Although there was no way of knowing it at the time, even before MEP began, a program had been started at UC Berkeley which would ultimately be instrumental in expanding MEP to other universities. Beginning in 1969, a group of faculty and staff at UC Berkeley decided to work with minority students in two high schools near the campus to increase their math, science, and English preparation. The Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) program was born!

Part IV

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation had an enormous impact on minority engineering education in California and on the ultimate development of MEPs. Soon after the 1973 Symposium in Washington, D.C., the Sloan Foundation announced that it would spend $12-15 million over a five-year period to establish a network of regional pre-college programs working to increase the number of minority students that were prepared and motivated to study engineering. Sloan hired Percy Pierre, then Dean of Engineering at Howard University, to guide this process. Percy wanted to put one of the regional pre-college programs in California and was successful in persuading the leadership of the UC Berkeley MESA program to take on the task of replicating the Berkeley MESA model across the State. The Hewlett Foundation joined the Sloan Foundation in committing $300,000 to $500,000 a year for five years to start the California MESA Program.

When I attended a meeting at the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley in 1977 to kickoff the MESA statewide expansion, I learned from Bill Somerton, that MESA was searching for an Executive Director. I told Bill I knew the perfect person for the job. I couldn't wait to start lobbying with Bob Finnell to take the position.

Bob was "just what the doctor ordered." A former English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Bob possessed superb skills and an unwavering commitment to minority engineering education. As Deputy Director of the Committee on Minorities in Engineering, he brought a strong experience and background to the MESA position. Furthermore, his personal and professional skills were superb. A great thinker, writer, communicator¾no one could "sell" better than Bob. As one example of what Bob was capable of, within a year, he had persuaded the California legislature to invest in MESA by providing two dollars for every dollar that the Sloan and Hewlett Foundations were contributing.

Bob established a Board of Directors for MESA and invited me to serve. From early on, Bob and I had formed a "mutual admiration society. " Since I had his ear and confidence, I began trying to persuade him that the MESA high school intervention was not going to prepare minority students for what they would encounter in predominately white engineering colleges. The point I made was that if MESA's purpose was to graduate more minority engineers, the high school program was just one step along the way. If MESA were serious about producing more minority engineers, it would have to address the university problem as well by extending the "pipeline."

It took a couple of years to bring Bob around. He was concerned that the success of the CSU Northridge MEP was the result of my efforts and since other engineering colleges didn't have someone like me, MEP just wouldn't work. He was also skeptical as to whether engineering colleges would be willing to implement MEPs in any case. I spent hours trying to convince Bob that because it was based on a sound educational rationale and had a clear programmatic structure, the CSU Northridge MEP model could be replicated and it would work under the leadership of any competent, hardworking director. I also worked to convince Bob that if resources were offered to engineering colleges to implement MEPs, they would jump at the opportunity.

Ironically, NACME was instrumental in turning the tide. In early 1981, NACME issued a "Request for Proposals" from the best MEPs in the nation. NACME's expressed intent was to give the best ten MEPs each $25,000 on a one-time only basis so that it could conduct a research project to study them and disseminate their approaches. I wrote a wonderful proposal and was miffed when I learned that the CSU Northridge MEP had been passed over in favor of three universities on the West Coast¾Cal State L.A., UC Berkeley, and the University of Washington. Since none of these universities had an MEP program, obviously NACME had "changed horses in mid stream."

The good news was that we now had four MEPs in operation on the West Coast. However, as the 1981/82 academic year progressed, it became more and more obvious that some if not all of the newly established MEPs would fold at the end of the year. I appealed again to Bob Finnell. The possibility that these programs that were barely up and running would fold persuaded Bob that it was time to move. He agreed to have MESA and NACME co-sponsor a meeting of university representatives to discuss an expansion of MEP under MESA's auspices.

Bob persuaded Mike Macias, who was then working as NACME's Western field service representative, to organize the meeting, which was held in Los Angeles. A number of universities were represented, all from California except the University of Washington. At that meeting, a task group was formed made up of Bob Finnell, Mike Macias, Tom Liao, Tom Stoebe, and me. Tom Liao was a visiting professor working for the Statewide MESA organization while on leave for a year from his position as an engineering professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Tom Stoebe was Associate Dean of Engineering at the University of Washington and was in charge of their NACME-funded MEP.

The task team developed a plan titled "Proposal for Graduating More Minority Engineers." The plan discussed the need for MEPs, gave an overview of the program model, provided an implementation plan, and indicated the level of resources needed. In the proposal, the need for MEPs was stated dramatically as follows:

The situation can be likened to the running of a race. Minority students are late getting to the starting line, arriving there after the race has begun; when they try to catch up, they find they must jump over hurdles not presented to the other runners. Pre-college programs such as MESA are needed to get minority students to the "starting line" on time; university support programs remove the barriers.

The plan also made a persuasive case that "California has all the elements necessary to build a model structure designed to increase the representation of minorities in engineering."

The State has a large and rapidly growing minority population. California employs over 20 percent of the nation's engineers and has a large technical industry base, which stands ready to support this initiative. Thirty-one engineering schools, including some of the most prestigious in the nation, are here. The MESA pool-building effort is working effectively to increase the flow of minority high school graduates into California's engineering schools. Finally, the MESA administrative structure is in place and is prepared to expand its role to include university support programs.

The plan proposed to start six programs in fall, 1982 and to add three new programs in fall, 1983 and three more in fall, 1984, for a total of twelve MEPs. A five-year funding plan was worked out, which was based on a base amount needed to serve 100 students plus a cost per student for additional students served beyond 100.

A key element of the plan was that it was clearly put forth as a replication project. No "reinvent the wheel" here. An in-depth program model was delineated and the plan proposed to invite engineering colleges to submit proposals indicating their commitment to implementing the model and explaining how they would go about it.

Had we invited engineering schools to propose for funding to do what they thought was best, one would have proposed to give the money to students in the form of scholarships, another would have proposed to provide it to faculty to serve as advisors and mentors, another would have wanted to pay faculty to work on high school science curriculum, and still another would have requested funds to conduct a ten-week residential summer bridge program. Not only would most of these approaches been ineffective in enhancing the academic success of minority engineering students, the opportunity to create a network of programs that could learn from each other and move the "technology" forward would have been missed. In my judgment, the "prescriptive" approach is one of the key factors in the success of the California MEP.

Looking back, our "Proposal for Graduating More Minority Engineers" was a superb plan. I don't think that Bob Finnell really needed it. I don't even know if anyone in Sacramento ever read it. They may have. All I do know is the Bob sold the idea. And did he sell it! I'll never forget the night Bob called me at home sometime after midnight. He said that his contact in Sacramento had asked whether we could use more money than we had requested. Bob wanted my opinion as to how much we could use. He and I talked it over and decided that we would just "double the recipe." We'd start all twelve programs in the first year. And we did!