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Robotics Engineer Helping To Close STEM Gap, Mentors Young Black Scientists

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Robotics Engineer Helping To Close STEM Gap, Mentors Young Black Scientists

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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.

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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.”


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  1. Akbar

    October 9, 2021 at 2:22 am

    I am for mentoring but the whole “achievement gap” has to stop. We hear others say things that are already telling us how they feel instead of what the current situation is in relation to having access to resources. I am for mentoring but not from the model that our kids are behind. Remember that white society keeps hearing this and assume that it means we have a deficit and this is the excuse they use within themselves to chose the white person over you when they are not sure who to hire. Get a clue, if they can make you feel that you are behind rather than you are where you need to be considering what you are exposed to then they will in the most subtle ways. You get behind when you start at the same time with the same goals in mind. Black kids need to compete with themselves and discover that the only way to grow academically is to speak positive words into their future. Call tings that are not proven as if they have been proven.” It is hurting all the Black potential employees when the white employees who are not used to hiring or interviewing Blacks is looking for a reason withing himself not too! I call it achievement crap because it is ridiculing the Black student instead of the racist system that has traditionally marginalized them and withheld resources. Proverbs 3:31 says “do not envy the oppressor and choose none of his ways.” For an improvisational people, I really do not see why we are not looking to be creative and innovative leaders now, like Serena Williams said when asked who she wanted to be like when she was just 11 years old, and she said “I want other people to be like me!” Think that was an accident, think again!


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