Valerie Bownes
Category: 2021 College Winner

Valerie Bownes

Black, female, and engineer. When I tell people I am studying engineering, I often get a puzzled look from them. Would they be less surprised if I said I was majoring in human resources or education or even English? I concluded that there is a reason for the puzzled look. When I did a little research to find out how many black women are engineers, I found data from a 2015 report from the National Science Foundation that showed this combination (black, female, engineer) reflects only two percent of the engineering workforce. If it was that low just a few years ago, I can only imagine how few there were when Mary Jackson worked in the 1950s. Mary Jackson was one of the women featured in the movie titled “Hidden Figures.” When watching the movie, I was surprised to see women as engineers during that time in America’s history. Women, especially black women were not given credit for, well, anything outside of being a wife or the help.

As a student who loves math, I was captivated by the story, “Hidden Figures” and seeing these amazing black women mathematicians and engineers in action. I was amazed at their problem-solving skills and how they were considered the first computers. I have to admit I was also a little bit upset at the same time. I never heard of these women growing up. I never heard of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, or Mary Jackson.

As I watched Mary Jackson, I had to learn more about her. She inspired me the most because her life was very similar to my life in three ways. The first similarity is that Mary Jackson had to take advanced classes after work to get promoted from a mathematician to an engineer. I had to take college classes as a dual enrollment student to graduate from high school with both a diploma and an associate’s degree. Secondly, Ms. Jackson became NASA’s first black female engineer in 1958, and in 2023 I will become my family’s first female engineer. And thirdly, Ms. Jackson took a position that was a demotion so she could influence the hiring and promotions of the next generation of NASA’s female engineers and mathematicians. My goal is to inspire the girls of my community to pursue STEM careers and to use my skills to contribute to the economic stability of my community.

Mary Jackson was a total package. She was intelligent, driven, and community-minded. In the face of opposition, Mary Jackson pushed harder. She focused on her goals and what she needed to accomplish. Ms. Jackson pushed hard against the glass ceiling for promotions in engineering. Unable to break through the glass ceiling, she found a workaround. Although she had the credentials and expertise to be at a management level grade, humbly, as Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager, Mary Jackson positioned herself to help the next generation of black, female, engineers. She positioned herself to help someone like me.