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Dr. Shamaria Engram made history by becoming the first Black woman to graduate from the University of South Florida’s Computer Science and Engineering doctoral program. Getting a PhD wasn’t her original plan; Dr. Engram had hoped she’d become an FBI agent.
“I actually had no interest in STEM at first,” Dr. Engram said. “I was going to major in criminal justice when I went to college.”
Before she started undergrad, she met an FBI agent who encouraged her to specialize in something. After doing some research, Dr. Engram decided that computer engineering would be a challenging and interesting field of study, so she focused on that when she went to Bethune-Cookman University—a historically black college (HBCU).
“I actually had no interest in STEM at first. I was going to major in criminal justice when I went to college.”
After her junior year, her advisor recommended that she do an internship at Iowa State University. There, she fell in love with the academic research process.
“The internship introduced me to all the things you could possibly do with computer science engineering,” Dr. Engram said. “I realized there was so much more to the field that I didn’t know about.”
Going from an HBCU to a predominantly white institution (PWI), such as the University of South Florida, was a culture shock. Bethune-Cookman University was a much smaller institution that had a family-like atmosphere among students and faculty.
“My undergraduate institution’s population was 96% Black. So it was uncomfortable when, you know, I was the only Black person in most of my classes.”
“My undergraduate institution’s population was 96% Black,” Dr. Engram explained. “So it was uncomfortable when, you know, I was the only Black person in most of my classes. I definitely wanted everyone to consider me just as smart as everyone else. And there were times when I would tell people where I went to undergrad, and they’re like, ‘oh, well, I went to UCF for undergrad,’ or, ‘I went to Michigan State.’ And they kind of look down on the HBCUs sometimes.”
One thing Dr. Engram thinks would help increase diversity in STEM is for graduate programs to rethink the way they recruit. Larger programs could do a better job educating minority-serving institutions about graduate school opportunities. Additionally, programs could recruit students from minority-serving institutions such as HBCUs.
“I have a lot of friends that went to HBCUs for undergrad who then went to an HBCU for graduate school,” Dr. Engram said. “I would ask them about it, and they said, ‘I just didn’t have any opportunities to go to a PWI,’ or, you know, ‘I wasn’t recruited by a PWI, but I was recruited by another HBCU.’ I think increasing recruitment at those kinds of institutions could be like a first step.”
After graduation, Dr. Engram started working at the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She may not be actively pursuing a career in the FBI anymore, but she has been considering a different career move in the future: teaching.
“I just realized that I really love mentoring. When you teach someone, it’s a form of giving back.”
“During grad school, I helped our diversity inclusion director recruit at a lot of conferences, and I also mentored undergraduates on research projects,” Dr. Engram said. “I just realized that I really love mentoring. When you teach someone, it’s a form of giving back.”
Learn more about Dr. Engram’s research: