Black History Month Feted in Style

NYU-Poly's National Society of Black Engineers and NYU's Black Student Union join forces at the annual celebration of past, present and future

Beverly Johnson could have gone home to Long Island after a long workweek and Jocette Hyman-Paul could have stayed in Long Island with her family, but both women chose to brave Friday-night traffic to travel to the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) instead, opting to spend their evening at the school’s annual celebration of Black History Month, although the two are no longer affiliated with the Institute. (Johnson was formerly the executive director of its Center for Youth in Engineering and Science, while Hyman-Paul had been its assistant dean of admissions.) “It is a Friday night,” Johnson pointed out. “But the students here need to know that there are people who care for them, and when there are events like this, it’s important that we come out and support them.”

That theme of mutual support was recognized by attendees of the affair, which was hosted by Poly’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), on February 17 at NYU-Poly’s Pfizer Auditorium. Speaking to guests at the VIP reception held before the evening’s main program, Calvin Young, who presided over PolyNSBE during his undergraduate years, confessed that he had not been a perfect student. Through the encouragement of mentors Young identified — among them, Johnson and Iraj Kalkhoran, associate provost of undergraduate academics, who was also in attendance — he was able to improve his studies and is now pursuing a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering at NYU-Poly. “Whose success is owed to what you’ve done?” Young challenged his audience.

Showcasing the Past

Jerry Hultin, president of NYU-Poly, provided a complementary view to Young’s question when he described meeting his wife at a civil rights march and his efforts to promote a more diverse officer class in the U.S. Navy, where he was under secretary between 1997 and 2000. “If you think about the richness of our society and its opportunities, we really have broken through in the last fifty years,” he said in his opening remarks.

The celebration had a related theme: “Back to the Identity of Black,” a motif that focused on the depth and number of black contributions to history. Sukari Brown, president of PolyNSBE today, explained that the theme arose from discussions held during weekly meetings of the chapter’s executive board, which debated various options. In an email, Brown wrote, “Everything that was being suggested had to deal with what makes Black beautiful, why we should embrace our history…or the wonderful diversity within the Black race…We figured it would be best to combine it to become Back to the Identity of Black.”

It was a theme that resonated with Dr. Irving McPhail, president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) nonprofit. Calling the theme “provocative” in his keynote speech for the event, McPhail referenced eminent African-American historians and scholars, such as Carter G. Woodson and Cornel West, to remind his audience of the black legacy they inherit.

McPhail was not without criticisms and admonishments, however. “The failure of the African-American intellectual class to come together across ideological lines is the number one problem facing our people today,” he said, before listing impressive statistics about students who participate in NACME’s scholarship program: They boast an average GPA of 3.2. 

“Don’t mess up my metric,” McPhail said, receiving laughs.

Creating Family Ties

In addition to remarks from McPhail and other attendees, the evening featured video segments from PolyNSBE members, as well as theatrical readings and dance performances by NYU’s Black Student Union (BSU). The organization’s participation came about through a relationship Brown jumpstarted when she attended an event coordinated by the BSU last fall. “We all just began to connect via Facebook,” she wrote in an email. “A lot of us have developed relationships with the students, and our treasurer even met his girlfriend through [the] interactions.”

Aquil Fannis, president of the NSBE chapter at Brooklyn Technical High School, where he is a senior, emphasized the closeness Brown referenced when he explained his attendance at the celebration. “Although [NSBE is] a professional organization, we do act as a family,” he said. “[NSBE] is good for you personally, emotionally and, definitely, professionally.”