In order to help make this year’s Black History Month a time of celebration as well as learning, West Texas A&M University’s Black Women’s Association organized local black speakers to come and share their success and their advice with WT’s campus. On February 10, at 6pm, students gathered in the Jack B Kelly Student Center’s Legacy hall in order to hear Ta’Keira Benoit and Kourtney Punch-Russell speak.
Both women studied and now work in fields where, for a long time, the predominant representative was a white man. Benoit works for the National Nuclear Security Administration and Punch-Russell is a Program Manager at the Pantex Plant. When speaking to the attendees of the event, they focused on first-hand advice for young college students trying to break into the STEM field and especially women of color, who are seeking the pioneers of their respective demographic. The BWA’s theme for this Black History Month is “be the change you want to see,” and the speakers touched on that topic with stories of their time in college, in their work environments and in their personal lives.
Both women were in the minority of their college classes. Benoit was the only woman in her engineering classes and Punch-Russell was one of the only two African-American students in her aerospace engineering major. Both, however, were sure to encourage others that find themselves in this situation.
“I used those scenarios to strengthen myself,” Punch-Russell said. “Those times when people told me what I can’t do… Every time I heard those things it pushed me to work harder–work harder than anybody else. Just to prove a point, that I can do it… Never let anybody tell you that you can’t do something.”
“Sometimes, being the change, you have to go through some things that are uncomfortable,” Benoit said. “It will take you out of your comfort zone and you have to really… learn patience.” Benoit stressed that being a change will not be easy. She encouraged students in that to rely on their strengths and to be confident.
Mentorship was something both women pushed for enthusiastically, encouraging those seeking success in a field to find a more experienced person in that field to help guide them towards a better understanding.
“You want people to actually mentor you from diverse backgrounds,” Punch-Russell said. “People who don’t think like and who don’t see the world like you.”
In closing, Punch-Russell and Benoit asked their audience to remember that being the change you want to see is paving the road for those who come after you.
“You shouldn’t leave college the way you came in. And you shouldn’t leave the college the same as when you [arrived in it],” Benoit said. The impact does not need to be great or huge, but any change for the better can affect the person who comes after you in ways that one can’t imagine.
Black History Month was designed to affect positive change. “By exploring Black History Month, the nation is paying homage to a group of people who have contributed greatly to the enhancement of America,” the Office of Diversity and Inclusion says on its website. “Black History Month showcases the diversity and pluralism that has always been in ample supply in the Black community. Such diverse exposure demonstrates that the Black community is not a monolith but rather a great mosaic of talent.”
And this month, the BWA and WT have organized a large selection of opportunities to get to know that community.
Black History Month at WTAMU- audio piece by: Emily Merrill and Ceasar Escalante https://soundcloud.com/theprairiewt/black-history-month-multimedia-audio-piece