About the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Sciences

By Leigh Hayden


The National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Sciences (GEM) is in the business of collaboration, plain and simple. A well-paid consulting guru has coined the term “colliance,” a merging of “collaboration” and “alliance” to describe a new business paradigm necessary for businesses to survive and thrive in the 21st century global economy.

For GEM, this isn’t news. They’ve been doing “colliance” for 27 years.

“Partnership is what GEM does,” said Saundra D. Johnson, executive director of the graduate fellowship program. “If it wasn’t for the contributions of our university members and employer members, we could not have graduated more than 2200 Hispanic, African American, and Native American men and women from engineering and science programs at the nation’s top colleges and universities.”

Johnson travels extensively, taking the message of partnership benefits not only for GEM’s many constituents but also for society to audiences around the country. Whether it’s a roundtable for the automotive industry, a presentation for a professional society’s conference or leveraging resources through relationships with organizations focused on K-12 or undergraduate technology student development, the core message is the same: increasing the numbers of underrepresented groups in engineering and science.

Johnson said, “We’re appreciative that the Supreme Court decision on the challenge to the University of Michigan Law School’s admission policy affirmed the business case for diversity in higher education, and by extension, the work force.” Michigan is a GEM university member.

Each year GEM selects from among 600 or more applicants from under-represented groups wanting to pursue a Master’s or Ph.D. in an engineering, physical, or life science discipline. Those awarded funding, full tuition and stipend, become GEM Fellows.

Fellowships are portable to revered institutions such as the Georgia Institute of Technology, MIT, University of Michigan, Texas A&M, and Stanford University – 89 in all. In addition to removing barriers to graduate technical programs nationwide, Fellow status opens doors to Fortune 500 corporations and government laboratories through internships. Ford Motor Company and Intel Corporation are leading supporters of GEM Fellows. HP, 3M Company, Merck, and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory are among GEM’s nearly 50 employer members.

The internship, two summers for M.S. students and one summer for Ph.D. candidates, ties theory to practice in the industrial setting. “It’s a formula proven to successfully graduate students,” said Johnson. “GEM’s core business, our fellowship programs, has an 87% graduation rate.” The internship component also gives employer members of the consortium the chance to build relationships with Fellows that can lead to offers of full-time employment after graduation.

“We’ve been quite successful in hiring the GEM Fellows,” said Della Smith, Intel’s Corporate College Manager for Diversity. “We have a number of GEM Fellows who have worked for Intel for many, many years. Clearly as we continue to invest in the program, that is the whole purpose.”

The GEM partnership, perfected over a quarter century, is members combining and maximizing resources to achieve a common goal. GEM universities and employers pool resources to increase the numbers of historically under-represented minorities obtaining graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math. Both benefit from efficiently recruiting, mentoring and training tomorrow’s technology leaders for positions in industry and academia.

Many in education and business recognize the threat to U.S. dominance in innovation when participation in technology education and the work force lags demand. “I think it’s great we’ve created brain drain from other nations,” Dr. Noe Lozano, Associate Dean Student & Diversity Affairs in the School of Engineering at Stanford University, said. “At the same time, we’re not advancing these professions as an American way of life, not only for diversity students but for all students.”

Women and minorities may be participating in greater numbers in science and engineering at all education levels, but representation is not close to mirroring their distribution in the general population. A 2003 Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology study, “Trends in African American and Native American Participation in STEM Higher Education,” found that between 1987 and 2000 Master’s degree awards increased from 2.7% to 4.7% and 1.6% to 2.8% at the doctorate level for African Americans. The 2000 Census tallied Blacks at 12.3% of the total population.

Powtawche Williams, a Ph.D. Fellow in Mechanical Engineering at Rice University, said, “It actually took me by surprise when I went to undergraduate school that there weren’t many minorities in science and engineering, let alone professors. So I guess with GEM, it sort of opened the door to the reality of what society was like in that respect and also to what opportunities and support were available.”

And students do have access to an extensive support network. Whether it’s the university, other GEM Fellows, or the employer member, students can connect with people and resources to help them achieve. Dr. Gary May, Executive Assistant to the President at Georgia Tech and a GEM alumnus, welcomes being a role model.

“I think one of my most significant responsibilities to the community and also one of the things I’m most proud of is my availability and accessibility to students whom I was once like. I am proud of being able to show them a different path, a career path that can give them a high quality of life, lots of satisfaction. Everyone knows or has heard of other careers, but not many people in our communities are aware of the types of ways you can enhance your life by getting into technology as a career,” May said. “The partnership among corporations, universities, and GEM is unique because it brings to the table all the necessary components for students to succeed. Students need funding to go to school. Students obviously need the universities to get their degrees, and students need to have places to take the skills learned to have a viable careers.”