“When I committed to Yale as an applied mathematics major, I knew my classes weren’t going to look like my sister’s at Howard. On a conceptual level, I understood that I was agreeing to go to a school with a 6 percent Black population in a major that was historically known for its lack of diversity. But it doesn’t really start to kick in until you’re the only Black girl in three of your classes. In my classes, I always feel a need to go out of my way to answer the professor’s questions or talk to my classmates because I would rather be known by my name than as ‘the Black girl in the class.”

I wrote this paragraph to open the “Being a Black Engineer at Yale” article that was published in the News’ Black History Month spissue. This quote highlights the systemic representation problems deeply embedded in both the engineering department at Yale and the engineering field at large.

I remember vividly entering my first class ever at Yale: CPSC 201, or Introduction to Computer Science. Even though the seats of Davies Auditorium were nearly filled to capacity, I still only needed two hands to count the number of Black students I saw in the room. Since coming to Yale, it has become an instinct to count the number of Black students in a room. I do it in the same way that some people count the number of exits. Knowing that there are other Black students around provides me with a level of security.

The gender disparity in engineering is a well-documented issue, and rightly so. Yale has made a more obvious attempt to support female engineers on campus. Over the past few years, the department has hired more female professors — though the number still remains quite small — and clubs like Women and Gender Minorities in Computer Science, or WGiCS, have grown to be some of the largest and most visible clubs on campus. However, the racial disparities in engineering don’t appear to get nearly as much attention. Yale does not publicly share information about the racial demographics of engineering students in the same way as for gender demographics. Across all of the engineering departments, there are only two Black professors whose primary appointments are in the engineering department: professor Michael Murrell in mechanical engineering and professor Anjelica Gonzalez in biomedical Engineering.

While Yale is certainly not an HBCU, the spaces that I inhabit can make it easier to forget. Through making Black friends and joining clubs like the National Society of Black Engineers — or NSBE — I purposely surround myself with a community of other Black Yalies. Yet the further I go into my major and the more advanced my classes get, it gets even more difficult for me to ignore the glaring differences between myself and my classmates. Out of the five classes I’m taking this semester, I am the only Black woman in two of them. That might not seem like a lot, but there are few other groups on campus that even have to consider such a thing.

This disparity doesn’t end in the classroom. It extends into engineering clubs like the Yale Computing Society, or YCS, and even WGiCS. It was in my software engineering internship at a reputable company, where I was the only Black person on my team and one of half a dozen on the floor. It’s in the most well-known and well-celebrated figures in engineering. It’s in the CS career fairs where the only other Black woman in the room is not an engineer but a recruiter. It’s like a stench that refuses to fade away. It’s apparent in every single layer of engineering.

It’s even evident in the creation of this article. Even though I have taken my fair share of CS classes, and even have experience in the engineering field, applied mathematics is not in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. There are so few spaces for Black STEM students on campus, so NSBE has become the closest refuge that we can find. So NSBE now boasts a wide collection of students from mechanical engineering to neuroscience, computer science and even psychology — any Black STEM student looking for a community where they don’t have to stand out as much.

As one of the leading universities in the world, Yale must do more to increase the diversity in their engineering student body and their professors. Yale needs to work on establishing more relationships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic Serving Institutions to attract a more diverse graduate engineering body, and, consequently, a more diverse faculty. Yale needs to put more support and visibility into clubs like NSBE, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, or SHPE and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, or AISES, to highlight the diversity in the engineering department. 

What I have learned through my experiences of constantly being one of the only Black women in my classes is that the only way they would allow you to be an exception to the rule is to be exceptional. Anytime I have tried to enter a new space in engineering, it feels like I constantly have to prove myself “worthy” of being there. However, by virtue of even attending Yale, I am just as worthy of a spot in the engineering department as anyone else. I shouldn’t be able to count the number of Black classmates I have on one hand. To this end, Yale must continue (or should we say start) to support and encourage diversity in every single corner of its institution — including the engineering department.

DEJA DUNLAP is a sophomore Applied Mathematics major in Pauli Murray College and the vice president of the Yale Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. Contact her at deja.dunlap@yale.edu.