In at least one way, Trina Fletcher is a lot like her mother. She’s a very busy and driven woman. But her love for STEM and helping others has set her on her own path.
After growing up in rural Arkansas, raised by a single mom who worked full-time, Trina earned her bachelor’s degree in industrial technology from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and a master’s in operations management from the University of Arkansas. She interned with Norfolk State University, Lockheed Martin, Caterpillar, and Kellogg’s. And she also completed the Global Operations Leadership Development program with Johnson & Johnson.
But she wasn’t done. Not even close.
Trina went on to earn yet another master’s degree in engineering management from George Washington University. Following her love of STEM and passion for working with disadvantaged youth, she’s been a basketball coach, mentor, author, international motivational speaker, activist, DC IMPACT Leader of the Month, and has helped found an education consultancy, Fletcher Education Solutions, with her twin sister Tina.
Currently, Trina is a PhD candidate at Purdue University studying engineering education, specifically the recruitment and retention of minorities and women in STEM fields. She also serves as the Director of Pre-College Programs for the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).
But for all her personal success, Trina has remained focused on helping give other women and girls of color the chance at the same academic and professional opportunities she’s worked so hard to find. She and her sister often say, “We’ve never taken for granted the people who have inspired us along the way.”
When Raising Nerd first reached out to Trina in early November last year, the movie premiere of Hidden Figures was still two months away. Here it is nearly four months later and we’ve finally pinned down this well-traveled, highly sought-after Super Nerd! We think you’ll agree it was worth the wait. Now that Black History Month and Engineers Week 2017 are both drawing to a close, our Nerd Profile of this amazing STEM role model for girls of color is especially timely:
Raising Nerd: Tell us a little more about your background and how you got interested in science and engineering. When did you first know you wanted to be an engineer?
Trina Fletcher (TF): My mom worked at a manufacturing plant from the time I was about 8 years old until I was 22, and I visited her at work often. My first experience with some form of STEM education was in 8th grade. I was one of the only girls in a hands-on, technology course where we built bridges and race cars, etc. I remember that class more than most of the others. [Those influences got me] fascinated with the production process and the intricate pieces that went into making a school bus from beginning to end.
Once I got to college, however, I actually wanted to be a coach. I had played sports all my life and coached girls basketball in high school. But during my 2nd semester at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), my Aunt Snookie introduced me to Dr. Charles Colen, the department head for Industrial Technology, Management and Applied Engineering on campus. When you come from a single-parent home and you hear about jobs in engineering and manufacturing management that pay the amount they do, your ears are definitely open. I connected the dots from that class back in 8th grade to visiting my mom’s plant, to college, and I figured, hey, I can do this and enjoy it at the same time.
RN: Who were your early influences/mentors? How did they inspire and encourage you to pursue a career in STEM and STEM education?
TF: I would definitely say that Dr. Colen was a mentor of mine, as well as Dr. Mary E. Benjamin, who was our Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs. They were just amazing. Day in and day out, I watched them work tirelessly to get STEM-related grants from the National Science Foundation and other avenues for students of color at UAPB (one of more than 100 accredited Historically Black Colleges and Universities HBCUs). Just amazing. As a result of their efforts, I was able to get my degree and become a strong leader in the process – not just an everyday student. They helped me secure internships and gain the book knowledge I needed to stay effective in my space. I’m forever thankful for them and other teachers and administrators that continue to make UAPB what it is today.
RN: You’ve become a passionate advocate and voice for minority women and girls in STEM and bridging the “STEM gap.” What are some of the ways you help encourage and support their educational goals, generally, and their involvement in technical career fields, in particular?
TF: One of my primary passions is to mentor young girls, especially girls of color, around taking advantage of STEM education opportunities. Lately, I’ve spent even more time sharing with other mentors, community leaders, and parents that we need to stress to our communities that educational investments should come before athletics. I do understand, however, that many of our communities don’t have access to academic programs like the programs I manage for the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), so sports are sometimes easier to access. That said, folks like me who do have a voice and power to help implement such programs, definitely need to do that. We need to make sure our kids have access and exposure to high-quality education even if it’s not STEM-related.
RN: Tell me about NSBE, your leadership in the organization, and about its Summer Engineering Experience for Kids (SEEK). What impact has the program had in inspiring students of color to pursue STEM careers?
TF: I’ve been very fortunate to manage Pre-college Programs for NSBE for the past year as its Director. SEEK, which is my largest program, serves students in the 3rd through 5th grades from underserved communities. Since 2007, we’ve provided free STEM education during the summers to more than 18,000 students and employed more than 2,800 mentors, who are typically college students. We have major corporations such as Shell, Chevron, and Southern Company that have consistently supported our program for years, and we are very thankful for that. I’m currently working on a grant proposal which will allow me to conduct a longitudinal analysis of students who have gone through the program as far back as 2007 to see where they are now. It is exciting work and a major ROI for the companies and people involved.
RN: You recently participated in The White House Conference on Inclusive STEM Education for Youth of Color. What was your involvement and what message did you hope to convey to its participants?
TF: I had the opportunity to attend the event as a representative of NSBE along with our Executive Director, Dr. Karl Reid, who was a panelist, and our National Chair, Matt Nelson. I was able to personally connect with several STEM leaders from around the country and the world to talk about topics from implicit bias and intersectionality, to innovation and the future of STEM education.
In addition to that event, I also had the pleasure of serving as a panelist for Google’s STEM community talk about Black Women in Computing. I also represented NSBE on Congressman Eddie Bernice Johnson’s Braintrust panel during the 2016 Congressional Black Caucus. Both panels allowed me to highlight the work that NSBE is doing for African Americans, especially African American women.
RN: You are currently working towards your PhD in engineering education. What has been the biggest challenge for you as a student?
TF: As a K-12 student, my biggest challenge was focusing on my grades, believe it or not, and managing my behavior. Things weren’t always easy at home as my mom worked up to 60+ hours a week to get overtime to make sure my sisters and I had food on the table and roof over our heads. That process, however, played an intricate part in making me who I am today.
My personal testimony is that I graduated from high school with less than a 3.0 but I didn’t allow that to stop me from being successful. I used that and my mom’s constant message of “work hard every hour of every day” to drive me to where I am now. Now, as a PhD student, the process actually hasn’t been that bad. But balancing full-time work and writing my dissertation has gotten a touch challenging at times. On top of that, I have my community work with my sister Tina at Fletcher Education Solutions, which cuts my hours of sleep. But we make it happen. I’m passionate about all three roles and give them my all.
RN: What fulfills you most in your work in STEM? As an education consultant and advocate for women and diversity in STEM fields?
TF: Serving underserved children through the SEEK program is the most fulfilling work I do with NSBE. As a child who grew up in a single-parent household and as a first-generation college student, I realize the significance of programs like SEEK and the impact they have on the lives of the children we serve.
As an education consultant, serving communities in my home state of Arkansas is very fulfilling. Having grown up in a small rural town, it’s rewarding to return home and work with communities similar to the one I grew up in. It’s exciting to help communities build the infrastructure needed to close the achievement gap within their school district.
As a woman and advocate for diversity in STEM, the most fulfilling aspect of my career is seeing young professionals and SEEK mentors go on to start and flourish in their STEM careers. To know we’re creating a steady and stable pipeline of minority STEM professionals is extremely rewarding.
RN: What continues to drive you in your ongoing education and in your service as an advocate?
TF: My twin sister and I were the first in our family to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In May, I’ll be the first in my family to earn a PhD. That, in itself, is a major driving factor in my decision to return to school and finish. My sister and I live each and every day with the goal of advocating on behalf of the voiceless. We simply want to help others the same way leaders in our lives helped us while we were growing up.
RN: What advice do you have for the future science Nerd out there that dreams of pursuing a career like yours? What activities, experiences or memberships should they pursue?
TF: I would recommend joining the various organizations related to STEM fields and careers such as NSBE, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and other organizations focused on specific subjects and groups. Attend local meetings, camps, free classes and workshops, and watch [STEM-related] YouTube videos. Do whatever it takes to learn as much as you can about things that you find interesting. Also, don’t be afraid to ask a family member, teacher, or someone you know who works in that space.
RN: At Raising Nerd, we believe that failure is an important part of the learning process. Tell us about a time where you had such a learning moment. How did you use that event as a catalyst for your future success?
TF: I would definitely say it was graduating high school with less than a 3.0 GPA. This actually caused me to miss out on several academic scholarships I really could have used. I remember telling myself I would never make that same mistake again. If I didn’t understand a class or was struggling, I’d get a tutor. If I was tired from practice (I played soccer in high school and college), I would do whatever it took to make sure I was never too tired for class. There was no way I was taking a class twice! Who had the money for that?! LOL
RN: What hobbies outside of science, education and advocacy do you have?
TF: I enjoy playing sports when I have time. Basketball, tennis and, some day, golf! I also enjoy traveling with my twin sister. We try to visit an African nation each year as we thoroughly enjoy the art, culture, and history of each nation we visit. I’ve also recently become a data mining Nerd. I just like to play around with data and numbers and use them to tell a story.
RN: What are your favorite sources of research, news and information?
RN: Do you have kids or other young relatives in your family? If so, how do you inspire them to pursue their creative passions, whether in STEM or other fields?
TF: I don’t have children but I do have younger relatives. I encourage their parents to buy toys that allow their children to think outside the box as it relates to creativity and fun. LEGO may seem basic but they’re a great first set of toys for a budding scientist. I have a few younger cousins I absolutely adore. Two are in college and one is in high school. The two in college are both biology majors so, of course, I’m proud.
RN: In addition to NSBE’s SEEK program, what learning resources and hands-on experiences would you recommend for parents looking to inspire and challenge their school-aged kids? How about for parents of not-quite-there-yet Nerds?
TF: We actually have a great resource on our NSBE site. It’s an extensive list of great STEM programs. I would also recommend parents simply Google things online whether STEM or not. Soooo much information is available on the web nowadays!
RN: Tell me something – a trend, a recent experience, a news story – that gives you hope for the future of women and children of color in STEM.
TF: The movie Hidden Figures, as you can imagine, has shed a remarkable amount of light on the history of Women of Color in STEM in a way I never thought possible. I am so excited to see this momentum continue for the fields of engineering, mathematics, and computing as a result of that film. It just brings so much joy to my life right now.
RN: Here’s a “just for fun” question: If your journey to a STEM career had a theme song, what would it be?
TF: Ha ha. This is good. I would have to go with “Dark Horse (Instrumental)” by Katy Perry. My close friends know I’m a huge fan of instrumental music and that song just screams “No matter what anybody says, I can do anything I want to do!”
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Want to learn more about opportunities in STEM/STEAM for girls and women of color? Here are some resources to help inspire your Nerds:
Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA by Sue Bradford Edwards
Destroying Myths Challenging HBCU’s Excellence from The Root
Women Who Code: You Are Not Alone from Forbes
The Complex Data on Girls in STEM from The Atlantic
Strengthening STEM Learning for Black Students from The Promise Magazine
Efforts to Close the Gender Gap Starts Early from CBS News