BY ASHLEY THOMAS
When Jamal Cherry graduates from Cornell University in 2014, he will be armed with a degree in civil engineering and a four-year education that will put him on a path to one of the world’s high-demand, non-traditional technical careers.
After graduating from the prestigious Ivy League research institution ranked as one of the world’s top 15 universities, the Tampa native plans to pursue a career in the energy sector specializing in petroleum engineering.
Cherry, a junior civil and environmental engineering major at Cornell, is one of a growing number of African-American students seeking highly challenging, non-traditional careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
According to 2010 U.S. Census numbers, African-Americans comprise 12.6 percent of the U.S. population, but are only five percent of the engineering workforce.
According to the Huffington Post, a University of Southern California study published in the June issue of Research in Higher Education followed more than 1,000 minority college students majoring in STEM subjects.
The study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, followed Asian and Pacific Islander, Latino and Black students over a period of nine years in an effort to determine the profitability of STEM degrees and help bridge the gap of minorities in those fields.
Among the students surveyed, those who majored in STEM subjects earned at least 25 percent more than their peers who majored in humanities or educational fields. In addition, those who pursued jobs related to their STEM majors earned at least 50 percent more than their humanities and education counterparts.
Few African-American students
As a member of Cornell University’s College of Engineering, Class of 2014, he’s one of two African-American undergraduate students from Florida majoring in civil and environmental engineering at Cornell. The other student, Hercules Stancil, is from Lakeland and attended Bartow High School.
According to Cornell’s Fall 2011 statistics for its senior class, there were 59 students seeking civil and environmental engineering degrees, including two African-American males, six Asians and three Hispanics. There were a total of 491 men enrolled in all undergraduate majors in the College of Engineering and 230 women. Of those numbers, nine were African-American males and four were African-American females.
Basketball and oil
Along with a rigorous engineering curriculum, Cherry is a member of the Cornell Men’s Varsity basketball team. A 2010 graduate of Tampa Preparatory School with a 3.7 grade point average on a 4.0 scale, Cherry was a standout all-state and all-academic player, where he helped to lead his team to a 27-5 record during his senior year before losing the Class 2A state championship final to Jacksonville Providence.
“Hopefully, I will be picked up by an oil company for an internship this upcoming summer which will give me hands on experience in the field,” Cherry told the Florida Courier. “I’m interested in drilling reservoirs and figuring out ways to get the oil out of the ground and cut down the risks of oil spills,” he added, referencing the catastrophic 2006 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. “I’d like to almost completely remove the risk.”
On-the-job training toward an engineering career began in earnest this year for Cherry, whose interest in the industry began early. As a child, he enjoyed “building with Legos and solving technological problems around the house.”
Interned in Africa
This summer, Cherry traveled to Ghana, West Africa where he worked at the country’s main generator and supplier of electricity, the Volta River Authority (VRA). As a VRA intern, he was exposed to various processes of renewable energy and worked on using biogas as a sustainable energy source that turns solid waste into energy.
The VRA produces electrical power for industrial, commercial and domestic use for 60 percent of Ghana’s population and supplements the electrical needs of the neighboring countries of Togo, Benin and Burkina Faso. The VRA’s energy portfolio includes hydroelectric and thermal power generation capacity as well as ongoing projects to add solar and wind energy.
“I researched certain aspects of some of the projects. One aspect I was concerned with was figuring out a solution to limit a landfill while creating energy at the same time,” Cherry explained.
Cherry’s solution for minimizing the landfill included “a mechanical-biological treatment plant. This plant would contain a combination of mechanical sorting while adding a biological side of decomposing organic matter, in turn creating a biogas.”
Before Cherry’s summer internship in Ghana, he met Kweku Awotwi, president and CEO of the VRA, who traveled to America last year and attended an Amateur Athletic Union basketball tournament in Orlando.
Awotwi, a native of Ghana, is a Yale University-trained engineer who earned a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University. He was impressed with Cherry’s story of how he manages his engineering studies and passion for basketball.
Cherry told Awotwi that walking on to a strong basketball team like Cornell in 2010 – which had just won the Ivy League basketball title – was not for the fainthearted. But he would not have done it any other way.
“I knew it would be difficult (playing basketball and majoring in engineering). A lot of people told me I would have to switch out, but I’ve been able to manage my time. I have a great support system at Cornell and at home. People want to see me succeed,” said Cherry.
During his time in Ghana, Cherry conducted free basketball clinics for the local youth at the VRA’s Community Center in Akuse, a small town that is the site of one of the VRA’s hydroelectric dams.
Lessons from basketball
He believes that discipline, ability to take constructive feedback and teamwork from basketball has strengthened his character, work ethic and time management skills – all traits that keep him focused and will pay off after college. As for basketball, he simply loves the game and contributes however he can to the team. He hopes that Cornell wins the Ivy League title again before he graduates.
Cherry also is a recipient of Cornell University’s John McMullen Scholarship, which recognizes undergraduate students with potential for exceptional success at Cornell in the field of engineering. The scholarship is named for John McMullen, former president of the Atlantic Gulf & Pacific Dredging Company.
In addition, Cherry is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Petroleum Engineers and Epsilon Chapter of Sigma Phi Society.
Diversity recognized by Obama
Even with the relatively small number of Black students studying engineering, Cornell’s Diversity Programs in Engineering was honored by President Barack Obama last year.
Lance Collins, dean of the College of Engineering at Cornell, said last year about the honor: “What the work the Diversity Programs in Engineering is doing to build and sustain the pipeline of outstanding women and underrepresented minority students will impact our profession for decades to come. I could not be more pleased with their success.”
Rick Allmendinger is associate dean for diversity, faculty development and mentoring for the College of Engineering.
“Here at Cornell, we see diversity as an opportunity, not an obligation. We have to leverage an increasingly diverse pipeline of students if the university – and the country – is to remain competitive, and as engineers we firmly believe that a diverse population leads to better, more creative solutions to the problems we face.”
Cherry, who started taking STEM classes in middle school, believes his Cornell experience in athletics and academics will assist him in achieving his dream of helping establish energy independence for developed nations like the United States as well as for developing countries like Ghana.
“Mr. Awotwi once told me that ‘Energy is the global currency,’” Cherry explained. “That means I can work anywhere around the world. I’d never have this opportunity if I didn’t have the STEM training and education I got before coming to Cornell.”