More than a dozen professionals from Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic brought learning, mentoring and encouragement to students in underserved South Carolina communities this summer through a virtual learning institute.
Members of NIWC Atlantic’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) team participated in a six-week online format called the School-to-Work Program, which was sponsored by state and federal transportation authorities and hosted by Benedict College, a historically black college in Columbia, South Carolina.
STEM instructors presented to mostly high school students a general overview of NIWC Atlantic as well as specific career options in fields such as engineering, cybersecurity and program management. The NIWC Atlantic team also offered general classes in finances, leadership and interviewing skills.
“In addition to the many other STEM-related activities we hosted during the pandemic this summer, it was a rewarding endeavor to virtually send our accomplished professionals to Benedict College,” said Cdr. Jeffrey Williams, NIWC Atlantic executive officer. “They produced vibrant and thought-provoking courses, fostered connections with those who had questions about workplace diversity and racial integration within STEM fields, and planted seeds to encourage successful future STEM talent in the community.”
Dr. Vareva Evans Harris, Benedict College’s School-to-Work Program director, said NIWC Atlantic instructors created dynamic classroom environments full of hard questions, lively discussions and responses that were both intriguing and informational.
“The diverse backgrounds of the NIWC presenters gave voice and evidence to the importance of diversity in the workplace,” Harris said. “The instructors shared not only their significant accomplishments but also professional experiences and the challenges they faced.”
One instructor who volunteered his time to the program said he appreciated hearing students’ thoughts and concerns during a period of American history characterized by a strain in race relations.
“It’s our job to shine the light into dark areas,” explained Richard Gibson, a NIWC Atlantic computer scientist. “We need to let future generations know their individuality and unique contributions, no matter how big or small, are very important and will help our communities grow stronger.”
Navy leaders recently stood up “Task Force One Navy” and are calling on all military and civilian members to “lean in” to necessary conversations on issues of racism, sexism and other biases that impact naval readiness.
“This is a moment of serious introspection,” said Peter C. Reddy, NIWC Atlantic executive director. “There are currently crucial conversations going on Navy-wide, and there is a plan unfolding even now within our command that will help encourage those conversations to continue.”
Some students attending the Benedict College program were particularly interested in hearing about the experiences of Black professionals at NIWC Atlantic. Organizers noted that, in their responses, instructors were honest and transparent.
“They told students that they faced many obstacles in their careers,” said Shanda Johnson, NIWC Atlantic STEM Outreach Program director. “But the instructors went on to describe how they were able to navigate through them, to ultimately triumph and succeed.”
Johnson noted that because they represent roughly 75 percent of the nation’s future workforce, minorities and women are a talent pool that cannot be ignored, especially at organizations like NIWC Atlantic, where some of the nation’s most sophisticated technologies are developed.
“We cannot afford to lose that talent just because thousands of children in our communities were not aware of, were not exposed to or were not given the opportunity to consider pursuing a STEM career,” she said.
Kelly Thompson, NIWC Atlantic STEM Outreach Program operations manager, said precisely for these reasons, partnering with Benedict College was an excellent opportunity.
“NIWC Atlantic is an employer that celebrates diversity because we truly believe it makes us a stronger and more effective organization,” she said. “This summer program gave us the chance to amplify core NIWC Atlantic values like equality, diversity and inclusion to a cadre of young and bright individuals who will hopefully carry that message into their social circles.”
Johnson, who taught courses in leadership during the learning institute, said the message she left with students was that successful people never use difficulties as an excuse; they use them as opportunities to become better.
“These type of STEM experiences send and reinforce the message, ‘I can do this,’” Johnson said. “It helps demonstrate to children from underserved communities of color that with hard work and perseverance, they can reach for the stars.”
As a part of Naval Information Warfare Systems Command, NIWC Atlantic provides systems engineering and acquisition to deliver information warfare capabilities to the naval, joint and national warfighter through the acquisition, development, integration, production, test, deployment and sustainment of interoperable command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, cyber and information technology capabilities.