College of Engineering News Room

Passing the Torch

by Russell Nay

Past student presidents of USF’s National Society for Black Engineers chapter reflect on the organization’s professional, academic and personal impact on themselves and their former classmates.


The official National Society of Black Engineers logo is nicknamed The Torch and “symbolizes the organization’s everlasting, burning desire to achieve success in this competitive society and to effect positive change in the quality of life of all people,” according to the organization’s website.

Since its inception in 1975, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) has strived “to increase the number of culturally responsible Black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally, and positively impact the community,” according to the organization’s website.

With more than 500 chapters and nearly 22,000 active members in the U.S., NSBE has created a global network of Black engineers, scientists and technologists. The nonprofit has chapters throughout six geographic regions and a world headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

NSBE is also one of the largest U.S.-based, student-governed organizations. Of its chapters, 288 are collegiate, and 145 are pre-collegiate. Former USF NSBE President (2016-2017) and electrical engineering alum Jonielle McDonnough said that the organization provided a sense of belonging while she attended USF and that the support she shared with fellow NSBE members was invaluable.

“As Black students, our capabilities are doubted a lot no matter what university we’re at,” she said. “Sometimes you get discouraged, but if you have a community in a NSBE chapter, it helps you stay motivated and focused throughout your program.”

After graduating in May 2020, McDonnough is now a hardware engineer in GE Healthcare’s Edison Engineering Development Program, which requires her to rotate for training with a different department or team every six months over the program’s two years. Currently in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, McDonnough said the first thing she did upon arriving was seek other Jamaican-Americans like herself in the community to help with transitioning to the other side of the U.S.

“If you’re not comfortable, you don’t perform at your best,” McDonnough said. “That’s why diversity and inclusion — genuine diversity and inclusion — is so important in companies and institutions.”

Much of her professional network was built through connections she made through USF NSBE networking opportunities, yielding at least 10 internship offers including one that led to her current position at GE Healthcare. USF NSBE engineering alums work at GE, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Intel, Boeing, J&J, Arcadis, and other industry leaders.

NSBE Annual Conference 2017

Jonielle McDonnough (front) along with other USF NSBE members attended the 2017 NSBE Annual Conference in Pittsburgh, PA. Photo courtesy of Jonielle McDonnough

McDonnough was also president of the USF chapter when it was ranked Region 3 Chapter of the Year at NSBE’s 43rd annual convention in 2017. That year, USF NSBE established a NSBE Jr. chapter at Middleton High School in Tampa. NSBE Jr. chapters encourage K-12 students to pursue a future in STEM, and Middleton High School’s chapter connected its high schoolers to USF NSBE members who served as mentors to a succeeding generation of engineering professionals.

McDonnough said that NSBE members can see the full culmination of the international community built by NSBE at its annual conferences.

“Basically, we take over a city, and there’s at least 10,000 Black engineers and STEM majors,” she said. “You don’t feel alone. Get involved because we all need each other, and when others doubt you, your capabilities, knowledge and skills, prove them wrong, stay humble and keep moving forward.”

Former USF NSBE President (2018-2019) and mechanical engineering alum Ania Harriott said that she saw a period of enhanced personal growth while in the organization. While Harriott joined several different student organizations before joining USF’s NSBE chapter, she said that right away USF NSBE felt like home and that the members she met became family after being in the chapter for a couple years.

“Throughout my years of being in NSBE, everyone was just so encouraging and uplifting and always wanted to see me succeed,” she said. “Through NSBE I broke through my comfort zone, and they helped me realize my potential.”

Harriott’s first USF NSBE board member position was Technical Outreach Community Help (T.O.R.C.H) chair, and she became USF NSBE President a year later. After a year as president, she accepted the NSBE Region 3 program chair position, which oversees more than 20 NSBE chapter program chairs in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, the Caribbean and South America. She led the program chairs to develop events and programs focused on professional development and STEM training within their own universities and local communities.

Harriott is currently a systems engineer with Raytheon Technologies and was recognized by a recruiter from her company as one of the NSBE chapter presidents present at a networking event. She said she’s carried her leadership experience in NSBE into her career, as well as her experience as an Engineering Living Learning Community (LLC) peer mentor for women engineering students.

“Having that leadership experience has helped me in my career now that I’m holding meetings and have opportunities to become a team lead,” she said.

While outreach chair for USF NSBE, Harriott established the chapter’s A Walk for Education program, an annual event that provides school supplies and SAT/ACT prep materials to K-12 students in underserved Black communities. USF NSBE’s event included partnerships with other USF student organizations, and the amount of provided materials tripled since its first year.

A Walk for Education

NSBE’s 2019 A Walk for Education provided local K-12 students with school supplies and SAT/ACT prep books. Ania Harriott (standing left of bust of Dr. Martin Luther King) served as USF NSBE President. Photo courtesy of Jonielle McDonnough

Harriott also managed collaborations between USF NSBE and Habitat for Humanity of Hillsborough County. The chapter sent student members to help prepare homes for new homeowners by painting, cleaning up lots and installing window frames.

Former USF NSBE President (2014-2015) and chemical engineering alum Nathan Roberts said that his experience in USF’s NSBE chapter, his research at USF and his mentorship experiences were foundational to achieving his PhD at Auburn University and his current position as a fermentation scientist at Cemvita Factory Inc.

“The opportunities were there, and being involved with different people led to those opportunities,” Roberts said. “I don’t know if I would’ve met them if I wasn’t part of NSBE.”

This progression of connections starts with College of Engineering Diversity Programs Director Bernard Batson, who connected Roberts with an undergraduate research opportunity with John Kuhn, associate professor in the Department of Chemical, Biological, and Materials Engineering. This led to him co-authoring three journal papers and winning student research awards.

“Mr. Batson was a phenomenal advisor, and I want to definitely give him a lot of props for the work that he’s done to support USF NSBE,” he said.

Being a member of USF NSBE introduced Roberts to graduate students in the chapter who coached him on navigating grad school and who are still part of his professional network today.

This was in parallel with him tutoring another NSBE member and good friend during his year as USF NSBE President. Roberts’ classmate, a civil engineering student, was struggling with the thermodynamics class he was taking, and Roberts had already completed it.

Roberts said that in just a few sessions of reviewing course material together, his friend was able to improve his final grade and was more than happy to tutor Roberts in a statics class in a later semester.

He said that stepping up to help one’s peers is part of the DNA of all NSBE members, in and outside of the classroom.

“Somebody may need a ride, somebody may need money or food — it stems beyond just an academic perspective into a sense of community of, ‘How can I help my fellow brother or sister who needs something?’” he said. “We looked out for each other in a way that made NSBE feel like a really nice family, not just on a leadership level but a personal level.”

NSBE Closing Program

USF NSBE members take a group photo during the chapter’s Inaugural Awards Ceremony in 2015. Nathan Roberts (standing second from right) served as USF NSBE President. Photo courtesy of USF NSBE

An eye-opening moment for Roberts concerning NSBE’s potential impact on the next generation of engineers happened while mentoring students at a Wesley Chapel middle school as they designed and built small mobile, controllable robots as part of the Bulls-EYE Mentoring program that summer. Founded and led by Department of Mechanical Engineering Instructor Jonathan Gaines, Bulls-EYE Mentoring is a five-week, STEM-focused summer program that employs engineering undergraduates to mentor Tampa Bay middle school students.

Roberts said that it was fascinating to see middle schoolers come up with creative solutions for their robots, and the experience inspired him to become an advocate for students — who may otherwise lack access and opportunities — to become involved in STEM, regardless of their age and grade levels. 

More than anything else, his experiences provided a deeper understanding of the empowering role of USF NSBE in helping Black students to envision that careers in engineering are possible.

“We need to do even more in encouraging and exposing students underrepresented in STEM so that they have options and don’t feel limited on what they’re able to do,” he said. “Students need to see that they too can have careers designing vehicles for Ford, testing spacecrafts for NASA, developing clean water systems or whatever their interests might be.”