Talking CEED with Benton-Johnson

Felicia Benton-Johnson serves as Director of Diversity for Tech’s College of Engineering, a job she has held since 2004. As such, she also heads Tech’s Center for Engineering Education and Diversity, or CEED. This program works with entities, both inside the Tech community and otherwise, to promote a more diverse landscape in Tech’s engineering programs.

The Technique was able to sit down with Benton-Johnson to discuss CEED and the impact it has on students.

Technique: Could you give an overview of some of the services that CEED provides students?

Benton-Johnson: Okay, so, CEED is the Center for Engineering Education and Diversity. We give students retention support, some one-on-one tutoring and mentoring, financial support, academic advising and career opportunities, like connecting students with corporate entities. The most important thing for us is we’re really big on building relationships with everyone we touch. The students, even parents, and corporate entities. We try and create a safe space for students to come and interact with us.

There are five people who are on staff here and we like to make sure that if one of us isn’t available, someone else is, and they can go in, give a student a hug, give them a pat on the back, give them sort of a push when they need the motivation to keep going. We call ourselves the safe space, a home away from home for students.

Technique: What part of your job do you enjoy the most?

Benton-Johnson: To be honest, the students. When people say “what do you enjoy the least,” definitely the meetings. But yeah, the students, especially when you see things come full circle. For example, we have a summer engineering institute and the students are here for three weeks. This happens as early as when they’re rising juniors in high school, and it’s so cool that we see them now, in the end, when they are graduating from college. It’s really crazy.

We see students that we’ve met as a freshman and now they’re in Ph.D. programs. Or when they come back from industry. We have a lot of students who come back from industry and they come in all the time and they come by to say “Hi” — that type of thing.

You see what you’ve done when students come back. Or they come back in smiling and they just tell you, “Oh my gosh I did so good on this test or this project,” and it’s really cool to see.

Technique: Is there any particular program that CEED runs that you are the proudest of?

Benton-Johnson: Most proud of? Well there’s more than one project that we have in this initiative. The partnership with Intel, we became a partner with Intel last year. They gifted us $5.5 million over the next five years to increase the number of underrepresented minorities across engineering and technology.

With that, it has enabled us to increase the number of students that we’ve impacted. For one we’ve expanded our peer to peer program, so now we’re supporting 120 students in that. Across the college of engineering and college of sciences and computing. That’s where we do a peer mentoring approach with upperclassmen mentoring underclassmen within the same major. And then we also have graduate students who mentor the mentors.

Also the partnership with Intel has enabled us to support more students financially. So we have what’s called “retaining inspirational students in engineering and technology;” we call it RISE. RISE is for your nontraditional student who is pursuing engineering or technology, sometimes a graduate student, and they are resilient in pursuing their degree.

So these students are nontraditional, someone who did not come to college straight out of high school, someone who may be married or is a first generation student. But they all have a strong work ethic and a drive to give back. RISE has enabled us to more than double the number of students that we are supporting
financially, and we are really proud of that.

The other thing is our summer engineering institute, which is the three-week residential program I spoke of. We started that in 2008. Since then, over 92 percent of the students who participated in that have gone on to pursue STEM degrees. We have a number of programs, I can’t really just tag one, we’re proud of a good number of them.

Technique: That is certainly understandable. You are doing great things here.

Benton-Johnson: Yeah, and we’re excited about that, having good people makes a big difference. We wouldn’t be able to do this with people who aren’t committed to the students and to making sure they obtain their degrees. Even for [engineering] students who we meet and who later decide to change their major, they are still a part of the CEED family.

Technique: Are there any new programs that CEED is looking to start?

Benton-Johnson: So, one thing that we realized is that graduate students need support as well. This year, we’re looking to start a graduate program similar to our peer-to-peer mentoring, where we are going to have support for graduate students. It will have different workshops, focused on professional development or how to get through masters or Ph.D. programs. …

These workshops would answer questions like, “Should I go into academia versus industry?” We will try to get faculty involved in the mentoring aspect as well.

Technique: What have you enjoyed about working on a college campus?

Benton-Johnson: It keeps me young. I also love the innovation and the intellect … always keeping abreast of what is new and current in the academic arena.

Technique: Would you say Tech has a different campus culture than other campuses that you have been at?

Benton-Johnson: Oh yes, definitely yes, for sure. The campus culture is one of innovation, it’s one of camaraderie.

I see students all of the time coming in. Just this Friday, I had a conversation with two students and they said, “we just started our own business.” Here, you get a lot of that — where students are starting start-ups, you know, that’s nothing out of the norm. I really love that about Tech.

Then too, it’s so diverse, in every sense of the word. In socioeconomics, culture, language, you know. People may not say it’s diverse in the sense of majors because engineering is the 800-pound-gorilla, but even the engineers are very multidisciplinary. They reach over into the other colleges and look to work with other students to build businesses or work on projects.

Technique: What brought you to Tech?

Benton-Johnson: So, I actually was a chemistry teacher, and I wanted to go into higher education. I wanted to get out of the classroom and do something different. I started out as a diversity coordinator for an engineering research center, called GTech,  back in 2004.

I got here and I just loved it. It just blended everything that my background is. The science, the education piece, the administrative and leadership piece, as well as diversity. It was just a really nice blend.

Every day is something new. That’s the one thing I really love about working in academia. Every day is just completely
different. Every day is nowhere near the same.

That’s the other thing I really, really like. I’m blessed to do something that I’m passionate about. This is something I get up for in the morning, I love coming to work. It’s something I can do every day, all day because it’s always different.

Technique: When you were little, what did you want to do when you grew up?

Benton-Johnson: Oh my gosh … this is really interesting … my mom was a teacher, and I was like, “I do not want to be a teacher. I do not. I do not. I do not want to be a teacher.”

So I was actually going to school to be an optometrist. I did a dual degree in biology and chemistry for my undergraduate degree, and then I went onto optometry school. All my life since I was little, even in middle school because I wore glasses, I was like, “I am going to be an eye doctor.”

That was what I wanted to do, and once I got there I realized, “Oh, this is not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

I ended up being, where am I, I’m in higher ed. I’m in education. I’ve taught in K-12 and I’ve taught higher ed on the education side, teaching students who were pursuing their doctorates. So I did education and higher education, but this is a different side that I like being on. I feel like I am right where I’m supposed to be.

Technique: What do you get from this job that you didn’t get from working as a teacher or in higher education.

Benton-Johnson: I get to have more input in the administration piece, and in directing the vision the way I want things to go.  In the class room, I’m more passing the knowledge onto students. But now, it’s kind of like directing the programs that support the knowledge and inventing programs that support the knowledge base.

Technique: What do you like to do in your free time?

Benton-Johnson: I love to watch a good movie or show. That’s my free time. When I have it, I mean I have kids so I’m
always running around doing sports or traveling for work. But just kind of like students, when I get the time I enjoy it. I also love to listen to music.

Technique: What do you like to listen to?

Benton-Johnson: Jazz and blues, though blues is probably my favorite.

Technique: Do you have anything you like to do in or around Atlanta?

Benton-Johnson: I really can’t stand the traffic, and my favorite season is the fall. So then, I love to go to the park, watch the leaves, look at the colors. Driving down the highway, when there isn’t any traffic of course, and looking at all of the different colors on the trees.  I just love fall.

Technique: What are some things that a lot of students don’t know that you wish they did?

Benton-Johnson: So the things that I give to them all of the time: This too shall pass. You’ve got this. You can get it done.

We wouldn’t admit you to Georgia Tech if you can’t get it done. Right now it doesn’t seem like you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s there.

With age comes wisdom. The things you stress out about now, you won’t later. For students, especially Georgia Tech students, they have to take a small time to do something that they enjoy to get refueled and reenergize to hit the books back again.

They always seem like they are saying they can’t take the time, but they don’t realize that [not taking the time] impacts them being able to focus. It’s just stressing them out. So if they take time, step away from it, and do something that they enjoy, they will get reenergized, refueled to tackle it again with a different perspective, and through a different lens.

I’m also really big on persistence, trying to stay persistent. Learn from your failures and stay persistent. Once again remember that this too shall pass. As one of my good friends says, “It gets greater later.”

Technique: It’s very inspiring to listen to someone speak so passionately about their job.

Benton-Johnson: It’s very rewarding. I don’t think I could see myself doing anything else. Touching lives. Seeing them. It’s so funny when they get older and they come back and they have
babies. I think “Oh my gosh, I
feel so old.”

But it’s a good thing. I’m waiting on that day, when one of my students brings their child to me, and they’re in the summer engineering institute, or coming to Tech as a freshman. That’ll be the real “ahhh” moment.