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Written by Calla Reed

Mentorship, Motivation, and a Growth Mindset: According to Dean Mitchell of the School of Engineering, these are the keys to success for minority students interested in engineering.

Although not an engineer by training, Dean Mitchell has been a unique and talented trailblazer in the field of engineering education since coming to Vanderbilt in 2002 as a result of his years of experience in STEM advising. He believes that “anyone is capable of learning and mastering any subject” despite the many unprecedented barriers that often arise in higher education, especially for racial/ethnic minority students. In order to combat these systemic barriers while performing his administrative duties as a Dean of School Affairs for the School of Engineering, Mr. Mitchell takes the time to advise existing minority engineering support programs, support minority retention programs, and assist in recruiting minority college-prospective students into engineering programs. 

Dean Burgess Mitchell

Some of his most notable contributions include being a primary advisor for both the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHIP); being a member of the Vanderbilt CARE team, an organization that works directly with engineering undergraduate students who need emotional support; and being a board member for the Tennessee Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, a wider-Tennessee organization that encourages and funds its youth engineering participants to participate in a variety of tutoring, research, and internship opportunities. Recently, Dean Mitchell’s has been spearheading an ambitious initiative to pilot an engineering mentoring program between School of Engineering alumni and current undergraduate students in the hopes of connecting more undergraduates to mentoring and career opportunities.

To highlight Dean Mitchell’s most noteworthy contributions, ongoing work, and passion for engineering education concerning racial/ethnic minority students, we documented his insightful answers to five key questions: 

1. What are three key words of advice or encouragement you would give to a minority student interested in studying engineering?

Mentorship, motivation, and having a growth mind-set. If a student doesn’t believe they can do well anymore due to the hurdles they have faced; they need motivation, they need mentorship, but most importantly they need a growth mindset. A fixed mindset states that you have done poorly and that’s the best you can do. A growth mindset is that I have failed an exam, but I can work as hard as I can and utilize the resources to do better next time.

2. Why do we need to increase diversity in engineering, especially for black and Hispanic engineers?

From a global perspective, we need both more underrepresented talent and more engineers. Engineering is not just using math and science to solve problems, it is also the ability to develop, and to make things that never existed before. When we see minority students earn a degree and be successful in their fields, we see innovation coming from their ability to fulfill their goals and establish their purpose.

3. What is it like to be a black leader in a STEM field dominated by the white majority? What are some of the greatest challenges of doing so?

Despite the difficulties of being a black leader in engineering education, educational leadership allows me to pave the way not only for the engineering program but for the majority of STEM programs and the university as a whole by creating opportunities in the School of Engineering and having outreach programs to inspire middle and high school students. I focus on giving back to the students while trying to pave the way for those who are pursuing their passions.

4. What is your proudest achievement or moment concerning STEM education or support for minority students (whether it was a minority student landing his/her dream job, receiving funding for a valuable program, etc.)?

One of my proudest moments is when I see a student where the lightbulb comes on. They weren’t doing well for a long time, and something changed to where they got it and they started doing well and graduated despite the struggles they were facing. This is one of my proudest moments because it is unique in that it keeps recurring, so I get to experience it every few years. Another of my proudest moments is when I see that same student who struggled in undergrad out at a conference recruiting other students for their company, and I’m happy to know they made it.

5. How do you hope to see the engineering field change over the next few years and into the future?

I hope to see more underrepresented engineering students achieve their degrees, but also more underrepresented personnel in higher leadership positions in established companies, such as Fortune 500 companies. Actively, I’ve been more focused on outreach, helping NSBE work with high school robotics competitions. I’ve also been coordinating an initiative to have some engineering students volunteer to visit elementary and middle schools in late February to take over a classroom and hopefully inspire a future generation of engineers.