Celebrating Black History Month and the Importance of HBCUs

Dr. William McHenry
Tagged: Alumni Article

As we close out the celebrations of Black History Month 2024, the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) Team had the pleasure of speaking with 2020 PAESMEM Awardee, Dr. William McHenry. Dr. McHenry is not only an award-winning mentor, but also the Executive Director at the Mississippi e-Center Foundation at Jackson State University, a father, and an advocate. His insights brought a deeper look into Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and the challenges they face and how developing STEM talent through mentorship is vital to our country's future.

According to a September 2023 Department of Education report, HBCUs represent a small percentage of colleges and universities nationwide but play an outsized role in facilitating the economic advancement of Black Americans. HBCUs punch above their weight in empowering and serving Black students through educational opportunities that strengthen professional qualifications and career prospects. For example, of the 363 engineering programs in the United States, only 15 are at HBCUs, yet they produce 40% of all Black engineers. HBCU graduates account for significant portions of Black professionals in several prestigious and high-demand career fields, including 50% of all Black public-school teachers, 70% of all Black doctors and dentists, 80% of all Black state and federal judges.

Dr. McHenry shares that despite the vast impact HBCUs have on Black Americans, they have consistently been underfunded. This can cause academic achievement gaps. Specifically, HBCUs have limited funds to upgrade classrooms, labs, and other facilities leading many students to learn with outdated equipment that does not adequately prepare them for careers in today's technology-driven world. HBCU students also often have limited opportunities to participate in undergraduate research programs at their institutions - valuable opportunities would allow students to gain hands-on experience to work closely with faculty and pursue their research interests. An increase in funding for research and mentorship programs at HBCUs would provide more enriching opportunities for students. A possibility for which Dr. McHenry is hopeful.

“I hope that major investments in technology and equipment at HBCUs will happen in my lifetime. All students deserve access to opportunities to prepare them to be leaders, innovators, and problem-solvers. State-of-the-art tools and resources at HBCUs could help make this vision a reality and enable students to shape the future,” he says.

Because of the limited funding, HBCUs must often find innovative ways to maximize resources and continue their focus on student achievement. Mentoring programs, both formal and informal, can serve as vital tools in cultivating student success.

Dr. McHenry stresses the importance for HBCU students to obtain strong role models and mentors because it helps students better navigate challenges and focus on their goals. He hopes that more HBCUs will prioritize mentoring programs because strong mentorship can help guide students through challenges, open them up to new opportunities, and inspire them to pursue fields where Black representation is currently limited, such as STEM.

While undergraduate students benefit greatly from mentorship to help them choose a field of study, pick relevant internships and opportunities, and make meaningful life and career decisions, mentorship should continue past the undergrad years. According to Dr. McHenry, Black graduate students are underrepresented, in part due to a lack of mentors. Increasing the number of mentors available and building those relationships can result in professional advancements for students including conducting innovative research, gaining access to funding, publishing work, and ultimately earning a higher degree. These milestones are vital for students who would be the first in their families to earn an advanced degree.

Dr. McHenry’s greatest hope is that in the coming decades, the demographics of leadership in education—including teachers, professors, administrators, and policymakers—will come to reflect the diversity of the student population. He emphasized when Black students see themselves reflected in positions of influence and authority, it expands their sense of what is possible for their futures. He believes part of the journey to this future is through increased funding and mentorship.

“With suitable support systems, a new generation of leaders and innovators will emerge to shape a more just and equitable society. The future starts today, and I hope to see more breakthroughs during your lifetime that will empower African American students to achieve their dreams.”

More information about Dr. William McHenry his notable work, his mentorship, and more, can be found here: PAESMEM » Awardee Profile (nsf.gov)