The first meeting of the National Society of Black Engineers was held at Purdue University in 1975. This is when the lightning bolts and torch were adopted as the society’s symbol, representing the striking impact of contributions made by black engineers and the desire by the organization’s members for continued success.

Today, NSBE has grown to more than 500 chapters worldwide and the NSBE-UCLA chapter, created in 1980, is celebrating its 40th anniversary. To mark this milestone, we spoke with three members about the early days and how the chapter has evolved.

Patricia Coleman James, 1982 graduate with a degree in chemical engineering

Patricia Coleman James, one of the founding members of the UCLA chapter, recalls the need for and challenges of establishing the organization.

“We were just a handful of students and used the chapter to support each other,” James said. “I was majoring in chemical engineering, a major that didn’t have that many students [who looked like me], and I had a strong desire to not fall through the cracks.”

She said she remembers the support provided by then-Dean Richard Stern to establish the chapter and recounted the enthusiastic support of staff member Deborah Hardin, who also worked to guide the UCLA chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

“All the students referred to Deb as the ‘Mother of the Center,’ the center being the room the school allocated for meetings and studying,” James said. 

James worked as a materials engineer before deciding to pursue patent law. She earned her law degree from George Washington University and currently serves as division counsel at AbbVie, a biopharmaceutical company.

“Even though I am an attorney, I am an engineer and scientist first and it has been a wonderful experience,” James said. “My hope for students in NSBE-UCLA is that they see it as a place where they can be real with each other. It is important to have support, inspiration and camaraderie. College is a special time. You may never see this kind of community again.”

Coretta Harris, 1983 graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering

Coretta Harris, a senior systems engineer at Mantech International, was an early member who continues to participate in and champion the organization.

“As one of the charter members of NSBE-UCLA in the 1980s,” Harris said, “I found a group where I could connect with people who had the same educational goals, and in many cases, came from similar backgrounds.”

Early on, the chapter was trying to find its way. Members spent the majority of their time identifying African American students studying engineering, understanding the goals and objectives of NSBE at the national level, and cultivating relationships to expand the nascent network.

“The internet had not evolved the way it has today. We had a few staff mentors like Deborah Hardin and Chenits Pettigrew, but we did everything,” Harris said. “We were soliciting funding from industry for the chapter, reviewing resumes, gathering job listings and advising each other on course selection.”

Harris said that NSBE-UCLA is a family of high-achieving individuals. “Even though our numbers still remain relatively low, we have made great strides in industry and academia. Several became professors, patent holders and a few run their own companies.”

Imani Elston, expected to graduate in 2020 with a degree in civil engineering

Civil engineering student Imani Elston echoes the sense of community that both James and Harris share.

“When I reflect on the last five years that I have been a student at UCLA, I recognize NSBE-UCLA as one of the essential parts of my integration into and navigation of my engineering degree,” Elston said. “I found a community of students that I could relate to academically, socially and culturally, as well as an organization that has prepared me to succeed as an engineer.”

To help cultivate useful academic habits, the chapter developed a student-retention mobile app called NSBEmon that helps users track how often they make time to attend office hours or sit in the front row of class. The app garnered NSBE-UCLA “Small Chapter of the Year” award at NSBE’s national convention in 2015. 

Elston has served as an executive board member and credits her participation in NSBE-affiliated networking events for helping her land multiple engineering internships with the City of Los Angeles. 

A few challenges facing the chapter, according to Elston, are student burnout, which turns into lack of participation. “The responsibilities of maintaining the club fall on a few shoulders, but I am thankful to all past and current members for creating and sustaining a space for people who look like me so we can achieve our goals.”