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.
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.
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
and biochemical engineering concentration, while Abebe majored in engineering
science with a minor in biomedical engineering.
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.
interning with the Seattle branch of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored
People in the summer of 2001, Steele began exploring
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
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.
non-African Americans in their audiences were affected by
the audio-visual presentation.
One attracted a large number of Inter-Fraternity
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
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.
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
revitalized the Daniel Hale Williams Pre-Medical Society.
And now, with membership that has more than doubled, the society
them to attend medical conferences, sponsoring community service
projects, and providing tutoring for med-school course prerequisites
has done an excellent job of turning DHW into a viable, active
organization,” said Carolyn Vallas, director of the
Office of Minority Programs.
plans to enroll in a post-baccalaureate program to prepare
for medical school after he graduates
Terry, associate dean and director of the Peer Advisor Program
in the Office of African-American
at an orientation
ceremony four years ago. At 6’3”, he was hard
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
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.
completed a term as a member of the national executive
board and academic excellence chairman for the 15,000-member,
of Black Engineers.
commitment to improving race relations on Grounds has shaped
many of his activities here.
addition to his work on the Connecting Communities presentation
with Abebe, Steele has
served as a
moderator for Sustained
Dialogue, a student
to promote biweekly discussions among students
on race relations. Last year, he was one of four students
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
in the program “Different Voices, Common
has won accolades from an array of organizations, including
Society, the Omicron Delta
Kappa Leadership Society
and the Office
Affairs. He is the 2004 recipient of the M.
Rick Turner Distinguished Student Award and the Algernon
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.
graduation, Steele will travel to Los Angeles to start a
job with Bain & Co.,
a global business consulting firm.
and Abebe refer to the image of the sankofa bird in their
that bird, these
found their own
individual ways to soar.
Charlotte Crystal, (434) 924-6858