April V. Taylor
Thirty-seven-year-old Terrence Southern is a successful robotics engineer, and he does not take his success for granted. He acknowledges and understands the positive role mentors played in helping keep him on the right track and reach his goals. Southern’s personal experience and the consensus of many experts in regards to closing the achievement gap illustrates the pivotal role mentorship plays in helping Black children overcome academic obstacles so that they can have successful careers.
Southern grew up in Detroit, Michigan and has spent 15 years in the tech industry, so he fully understands the challenges that the next generation of Black’s working in the STEM field will face. During his first job as a robotics and automation engineer at General Motors (GM) at age 23, he led a robotics team whose job was to conduct multi-million dollar projects. A mentor, who Southern now considers a close friend, played a key role in navigating him around the land mines he encountered during that time period.
During many of his experiences at GM, he was “the only Black kid in the room,” leading co-workers to take issue not only with his race but also his young age, many times expecting, and even hoping, that he would fail at his job. Southern genuinely believes that without the help of his mentor, GM manager Ray Roberts, he most likely would have given them what they wanted by failing.
Referring to some of the advice Roberts gave him, Southern states, “He told me up front, they’re going to try different things to shake your faith, shake your confidence and put you in a situation where you don’t think you can win. If you do well, that’s going to intimidate them.” Despite proving his managers wrong, squashing their doubts and succeeding at every task, he was still routinely looked over. Rather than genuinely being considered for positions, he was used as a token Black applicant for the company to fulfill its diversity policy and include at least one Black applicant in every pool of three candidates for projects.
Southern currently for GE Transportation as a robotics and automation engineer, and his mentor has made sure to encourage him to pay it forward. Knowing that not meeting his first engineer until he was a sophomore in college played a role in college being “tricky,” he began tutoring students in 2003. His work as a mentor paid off, with Southern helping one of the kids he worked with quit selling drugs, graduate from college and start his own business.
One of the lessons he learned while mentoring is that high school is too late to intervene, so in 2006, he started a robotics team in Detroit made up of 4th through 8th graders, mentoring the kids through middle and high school. All of the students who participated in the program are now college students.
Using that experience as a template, he now runs the nonprofit organization Illuminate STEM, with STEM standing for “Sustaining Talent and Elevating Minds.” Of the 50 kids enrolled in the program, Southern says that he wants “these kids to be able to compete against suburban kids in robotics competitions. It has taken a while to get them in the winning mindset because they didn’t know what it was like to win.”