Minorities find high-tech success

July 03, 2000|By Vikas Bajaj | Vikas Bajaj,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

Years ago, when Vincent McNeil visited a counselor at his new school in San Diego, he was automatically relegated to a remedial English class.

Later, McNeil recalled, fellow students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told him they thought he'd been accepted to MIT just because he was black.

But McNeil, now age 36 and Texas Instruments' worldwide network camera manager, says he fared much better than most blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans who try to get into high-tech careers. "There is a woeful lack of African-Americans in high-tech," he said. "I have been fortunate that I have had good mentors along the way."

Experts say the digital divide is keeping underrepresented groups out of rewarding technology jobs.

Hispanics, blacks and American Indians earned 14.2 percent of the science and engineering bachelor's degrees awarded in 1997, according to a National Science Foundation study. That was up from 9.5 percent in 1989 but still well below the three groups' 24.6 percent share of the American population. (Asians earned 8.1 percent of science and engineering bachelor's degrees, more than double their 3.8 percent share of the U.S. population.)

Andrew P. Bernat, a professor of computer science at the University of Texas-El Paso, said many minorities are getting left behind because public schools are not preparing them for high-tech careers and businesses are doing little to help. "The long-term detriment is we will have two classes of people: Those who can do it and the people who can't," Bernat said.

Most students are disqualified from a tech career early in their lives when they forgo calculus, trigonometry and other basic math and science courses, he said.

Carlos Alvarez, president of the Dallas chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, or SHPE, said school officials who have an "assembly line" attitude perpetuate the problem.

"Their goal was to get you enough to graduate," said Alvarez, a systems engineer at Nortel Networks. "It was up to the student to get the advanced science and math classes."

Alvarez credits his parents, neither of whom have a college degree, and members of SHPE for encouraging him.

McNeil said the lack of minority role models can be discouraging. Most university engineering and computer science departments have few minority professors.

"You don't see yourself reflected in the population," McNeil said. "And if you don't succeed, you don't know whether it is you or the system."

The Systems and Software Engineering Affinity Lab, a University of Texas-El Paso program that involves students in research projects, has proved that minority students do well when professors show an interest in them.

The 5-year-old project, which is open to students regardless of race, has seen all of its participants go on to graduate school. The program has about 30 students a year.

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