An enduring mentorship that started with a single lunch
When Robert V. Jones ('87) was an undergraduate student at the University of Notre Dame, he was the only Black engineer in his graduating class. Without the guidance and encouragement of Dr. Howard G. Adams, then the Executive Director of the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science (now widely known as the National GEM Consortium), he might never have pursued graduate studies at NYU Tandon. The two still speak on occasion, and Jones credits that longstanding relationship with teaching him the importance of having a mentor, especially one who looks like you and has experienced some of the same trials. So, back in 2015, when Director of Alumni Relations Valerie Cabral asked him to participate in a mentorship program she was launching, Jones didn’t hesitate.
The idea was a simple one: take a student out to lunch (even a brownbag sandwich would do) and provide a willing ear and needed advice, whether that concerned how to succeed in a difficult class, find an internship, ace a job interview, make an impact as a professional — or cope with the challenges inherent in being a person of color in the STEM fields.
That’s how Jones met Christian Baker ('18), then a first-year student interested in big data and artificial intelligence. “I saw something of myself in him,” Jones, the founder and CEO of cybersecurity firm PReSafe Technologies, recalls. “I realized I could serve as an example to him that it’s possible to overcome any challenges you might face and reassure him that he would succeed.”
Baker has, in fact, succeeded, just as Jones predicted. Now a solutions engineer at Nielsen, he says, “When I first met Robert, I didn’t have much direction. I looked at all he had accomplished though, and I began to see the possibilities for myself. He showed me where to direct my energies, explained the importance of networking, and gave me very valuable advice about searching for a job. I don’t think I’d be where I am now without him.”
Six years after first meeting, the two get together as often as possible, whether that’s to chat over Zoom or, in pre-pandemic days, to attend an alumni event or confer over a cup of coffee. “At this point, we act as sounding boards for each other,” Jones says. “Everyone thinks that it’s the mentor doing the mentee a big favor, but I also benefit; I get to hear a youthful perspective and learn about the newer tech out there, so the influence is definitely bidirectional.”
For his part, Baker is already finding out what it feels like to be on the other side of the equation: he’s active in the Black and Latino Men@Tandon initiative and is serving as a mentor to a group of undergraduates. “Robert has always lived by the motto ‘Service equals purpose,’” he says, “and I have found that to be very true as well.”
The mentor who started the cycle
Dr. Howard G. Adams, who mentored Jones as an undergraduate, garnered numerous awards throughout his career, including the Society of Engineering Education’s Centennial Medallion; the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Mentoring; and the National Society of Black Engineers’ Golden Torch Award for Lifetime Achievement in Academia.
Called upon to write a testimonial to Adams, Jones reflected: “What I admire most about Dr. Adams is his endless, unselfish passion for helping others to grow and realize their full potential — often well past one's own self-limiting vision. Adept at igniting a spark that grows into a flame of achievement beyond the norm; Dr. Adams has had a tremendous transformative impact on me and many other. Moreover, his actions are a catalyst of inspiration for those who have benefited from his mentorship to continue as mentors themselves.”