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‘Connecting Communities’
Engineering Students Develop Presentation That Gets Peers Thinking, Talking About African-American History At U.Va.

May 7, 2004 -- The sankofa, a mythological African bird, faces backward but flies forward.

In much the same way, University of Virginia engineering students Justin Steele and Ermias Abebe have explored their cultural heritage while gaining the tools needed for their future professional success.

Abebe, 20, who was born in Khartoum, Sudan, and Steele, also 21, and a native of Seattle, both entered the University as undergraduates in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Steele majored in chemical engineering with a biotechnology and biochemical engineering concentration, while Abebe majored in engineering science with a minor in biomedical engineering.

Both have been active in a broad range of U.Va. programs, including the Office of African-American Affairs’ Peer Advisor Program and the Engineering School’s BRIDGE Program, which helps first-year engineering students make the transition from high school to college.

While interning with the Seattle branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the summer of 2001, Steele began exploring African-American history. When he returned to U.Va. that fall, he and Abebe took the initiative to research and compile an audio-visual presentation that became “Connecting Communities: African-American History at U.Va.” The presentation — which Steele and Abebe have given to numerous audiences around Grounds – details the history of race relations at the University, beginning with the housing arrangements made by 18th and 19th century students for their slaves and including a 21st century incident in which students dressed in blackface to attend a fraternity Halloween party.

“I saw that these things were continuing to happen because all we would do is react without having knowledge of the history behind it,” Abebe said.

Even non-African Americans in their audiences were affected by the audio-visual presentation. One attracted a large number of Inter-Fraternity Council members. “Most of the audience members were there to fulfill the Fraternal Organization Agreement requirement, but very few left after the required time, and they asked a lot of questions, many questions that rarely come out,” Steele said.

The success of their presentation has been one of many achievements for both students. Abebe’s involvement with the National Society of Black Engineers provided a prototype and inspiration for what the University’s premedical society could be — a network of advice and support for black students on the medical-school track.

“When I got here, there were only a few active members and meetings only a couple times a semester,” said Abebe, who now is also active in the regional office of the Student National Medical Association.

He revitalized the Daniel Hale Williams Pre-Medical Society. And now, with membership that has more than doubled, the society works actively to mentor students, encouraging them to attend medical conferences, sponsoring community service projects, and providing tutoring for med-school course prerequisites and entrance exams.

“Ermias has done an excellent job of turning DHW into a viable, active organization,” said Carolyn Vallas, director of the Engineering School’s Office of Minority Programs.

Abebe plans to enroll in a post-baccalaureate program to prepare for medical school after he graduates from U.Va.

Sylvia Terry, associate dean and director of the Peer Advisor Program in the Office of African-American Affairs, first noticed Steele at an orientation ceremony four years ago. At 6’3”, he was hard to miss.

"I think of his height as symbolic of what he has had to offer at the University,” she said. “He has been heads above in height, stature and accomplishment.”

Steele’s academic success has been recognized by his induction into Tau Beta Pi, the Engineering Honor Society, and his presence in the Rodman Scholars’ Program. He just
completed a term as a member of the national executive board and academic excellence chairman for the 15,000-member, student-run National Society of Black Engineers.

His commitment to improving race relations on Grounds has shaped many of his activities here.

In addition to his work on the Connecting Communities presentation with Abebe, Steele has served as a moderator for Sustained Dialogue, a student initiative to promote biweekly discussions among students on race relations. Last year, he was one of four students appointed by U.Va. President John T. Casteen III to serve on the University’s Commission on Diversity and Equity. He also was one of six students invited to speak to the Class of 2007 about diversity in the program “Different Voices, Common Threads.”

Steele has won accolades from an array of organizations, including the Raven Society, the Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Society and the Office of African-American Affairs. He is the 2004 recipient of the M. Rick Turner Distinguished Student Award and the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, granted each year to one U.Va. faculty member and two fourth-year students in recognition of excellence of character and service to humanity.

After graduation, Steele will travel to Los Angeles to start a job with Bain & Co., a global business consulting firm.

Steele and Abebe refer to the image of the sankofa bird in their presentation. Like that bird, these men have found their own individual ways to soar.

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (434) 924-6858

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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