ELITE Program Prepares Black Youth to Revolutionize STEM Industry Status Quo
Professional engineer Dr. Andre McDonald’s striding footfalls clack and echo across the vacant University of Alberta (U of A) pedway. Intervals of streetlights pass through the windows and cross his face like a turn signal keeping time with his confident steps—it’s a winter night in early 2020 and Dr. McDonald is mentally cataloging his accomplishments.
A doctor of philosophy in mechanical engineering with a bachelor of science in law, a mechanical engineering professor, a lead editor of the Journal of Thermal Spray Technology—these roles keep company with the myriad others he maintains. Dr. McDonald has finally met his own thorough threshold of achievement to give back—as an undeniably accomplished professional, and to the Black community he once stood outside of.
“To be Black is one thing, but to be an active member of the Black community is another thing. We all face the same barriers, the same challenges. I wasn’t a part of the community, even though I am from the community.”
Overcoming racist perceptions
Dr. McDonald says he feels the negative perceptions people may have of Black people layered on himself. “Some people may not think of me as the person they want to promote, or as the best person for the board.”
Those perceptions and institutional barriers create consequences: “If you don’t get promoted, then you don’t get pay raises, and then you can’t support generational wealth transfer and upward mobility.”
His list of accomplishments spans pages upon pages—and even though he has the same skills as his counterparts, he must do additional work to prove the preconceived perceptions wrong and be recognized for it. “I will probably work four to eight times as hard as my average colleague just to make sure I have the skills to prove myself—I always have this full record of accomplishments to show credibility and evidence.”
He wants to change that reality for Black youth—to disrupt industry, support their prospects for upward mobility, and make history. “I started speaking with some of my colleagues at the U of A and started to meet some new people. It dawned on me that I was in an opportune position to create a program that could potentially set Black youth into a pipeline for STEM, the subjects that will revolutionize the future of work and society in general.”
Thus began the burgeoning of his proudest accomplishment—the Experiential Learning in Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship (ELITE) Program for Black Youth—and unknown to him at the time, the beginning of a new era of support in his
“I want Black youth to know they are intrinsically, innately resilient.”
When he first dreamed up the program, Dr. McDonald hoped to create opportunities for Black youth as young as 15 to get hands-on, paid experiences in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields to combat the disproportionate number of Black youth in those types of careers—a missed opportunity.
Then he realized there was more to supporting Black youth and preparing them to sit at the professional STEM dinner table, where they would experience more than just the heavy workload that accompanies most professional careers. He knew they would also be served a side of triggers like news of the murder of a Black person, institutional barriers, and subtle or overt racism.
“When you layer on all these intersections and then put the professional stress on top of that, I wonder to myself, how do we cope? How do we remain so resilient?” After consulting with a colleague who is a registered clinical psychologist, Dr. McDonald implemented a wellness and coaching series into the program.
He also realized lasting skills like independent thinking and entrepreneurship would enable Black youth to circumvent barriers, so he created the Entrepreneurship Design Series to teach the skills to launch and grow a business venture.
Then he wanted to maximize opportunities, so he collaborated with Campus Saint-Jean at the U of A to ensure the program was available in French and with the U of A Augustana Campus to connect with rural participants.
Dr. McDonald explains that mentorship and advocacy cannot last forever, so the program fosters skills to withstand time—to create self-sufficient leaders in the STEM professions who will gas the mentorship fire for the next generation and advocate on their behalf. “We don't want to have more conversations with youth to tell them we understand it's hard—we understand the barriers are there, let's give you mentorship, and that's it. No, we want to focus on the provision of tools.”
Through the internships, he has seen a student implement pricing strategies and protocols for Sysco Canada, and 17-year-old students talking about protein expression in the data of pregnant women with malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa and northern South America. He is learning from the presentations of undergraduate students using code and artificial intelligence to monitor city traffic patterns.
Last year, the ELITE Program trained 43 interns between the ages of 15 to 22, engaged 50 internship hosts, and secured almost one million dollars in funding. Sometimes, when Dr. McDonald is washing dishes, he stands over his sink, welling with pride, and yells “ELITE!”.
Dr. McDonald is altering his own professional and personal world. He is now an active part of the Black community, entrenched in the empathy and teamwork of those who understand his point of view and can give him support, and support Black youth by proxy. “I found while I could go faster by myself, I could go farther by collaborating with others.”
The ELITE Program for Black Youth grew through the cooperation of colleagues, program funders, advice givers, organizations who took interns, and the young people it trains. “Everybody's coming together—irrespective of their race, creed, culture, gender, sexuality, whatever—to really make this happen. There's no performative virtue signalling, none of that. The folks participating in this are getting such meaningful benefit that it's going to create memories. That's how history's going to be created.”
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Dr. Andre McDonald, P.Eng.