Himma Aklilu

Meet the scholars redefining the future of STEM

With a Raytheon Technologies scholarship in hand, these students are laying a foundation for greater representation in tech

When Himma Aklilu learned she had won a scholarship to study computer science at Cornell University, she knew right away the benefits would go far beyond just herself.

“The scholarship is not only helping me. It's helping everyone that I'm going to help after me, the people in my community,” said Aklilu, who was born and raised in West Philadelphia by parents who immigrated from Ethiopia. “I know a lot of little girls in my church that look up to me and say things like, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to do that stuff now,’ and sometimes on Sundays we’ll code on the computers. So, the scholarship is important not only for me but for the whole community.”

Aklilu is among 10 recipients of the first-ever Raytheon Technologies x SMASH scholarship in 2021 – part of the company’s 10-year, $500 million Connect Up initiative to bring transformative, generational change and address pressing present-day problems in communities around the world. Within Connect Up is a five-year commitment to SMASH, an academic and experiential engagement program dedicated to students of color who are studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), with the goal of increasing representation in the technology workforce and creating role models for generations to come.

The power of representation

According to the Pew Research Center, Black and Hispanic people account for 28% of employed U.S. adults but hold only 17% of STEM jobs. The gap is especially large for Hispanic adults, who account for 17% of all occupations but only 8% of all STEM workers. Meanwhile, Black adults have lower representation in some fields, such as just 5% in engineering and 6% in physical sciences.

For Elmer Sosa, another scholarship recipient and SMASH Academy alumnus, meeting an engineer of Mexican descent through the program was especially inspiring. Years later, he remembers the man’s story – particularly how he grew up in a low-income community and went on to a career in space programs.

“Getting to see that was a real motivating factor for me,” said Sosa, who will attend Dartmouth College in the fall to dual-major in economics and engineering physics. “The power of seeing someone like that be successful in a field that you are interested in, even though the odds are against you, makes me hopeful that I can be that person for somebody in the future.”

Building a more diverse STEM workforce requires greater representation in the STEM education system – particularly at the college and university level. As of 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, Black undergraduates accounted for just 4% of engineering degrees and 9% of computer science degrees. Meanwhile, Hispanic and Latino students made up 20% of undergrads in 2018 while accounting for just 12% of engineering degrees and 11% of computer science degrees, according to the National Science Foundation.

Where smart meets heart

Advocates for greater representation in STEM careers say that because technology affects the lives of so many, the industry needs perspectives that reflect the world’s population.

“Growing up in East Oakland, I experienced firsthand the lack of opportunities for diverse youth. But I also experienced the great value that STEM programs brought, both in terms of building passion and confidence and opening professional pathways that may have never otherwise been considered,” said Danielle Rose, the CEO of SMASH. “We must deeply invest in education and actively develop talent beyond those who have historically participated in STEM. Thanks to Raytheon Technologies, we are making positive progress towards a more diverse, career-ready workforce of the future.”

For Aklilu, diversity in STEM is a way to make sure everyone can benefit from innovation.

“My parents really instilled in us this dedication to work but also the idea that the meaning of everything you do is greater than yourself,” she said, adding that she wants to use machine learning and financial technology to promote financial literacy. “You can do computer science while also having social impact.”

‘Working to improve the world with their brains’

Giselle Cortez, a scholarship recipient from Los Angeles who will attend the University of Southern California to study electrical and computer engineering, is already looking forward to inspiring the next generation of STEM talent – especially women, who often face obstacles such as “impostor syndrome,” or the feeling they are not worthy of their position.

“I want to lend my experiences as a minority and woman in STEM to other high school, middle school, and elementary school students,” said Cortez, whose father and mother immigrated from El Salvador and Mexico, respectively. “I think that would serve as a nice realization that they do have a shot at this and they can do this.”

SMASH has a strong track record – one of the reasons Raytheon Technologies has chosen the organization as a strategic partner. Seventy-nine percent of SMASH alumni receive undergraduate degrees in STEM, and 51% go on to work full-time in such professions.

“What motivated me to get into STEM was seeing other SMASH students who were working to improve the world with their brains,” said Zuriel Johnson, a scholarship recipient in Atlanta who plans to major in civil engineering at Morehouse College. “Lots of areas in underserved communities in Atlanta are not given much attention. I want to help build more infrastructure for those communities so there are jobs available, especially for youth so they have an opportunity to focus on building a future.”

After the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the scholars are eager to start a new chapter in their academic journeys, especially Cortez and Sosa, who are among this year’s cohort of interns at Raytheon Technologies. Cortez will work with a team to develop an online resource for Pratt & Whitney employees to research non-technical data about commercial engines. Sosa will work to build an app for Collins Aerospace employees to easily access industry trends and COVID-19 recovery details that could have an impact on their work.

“Raytheon Technologies has become one of my favorite companies,” Sosa said. “The focus on innovation is something that really draws me. I can’t wait to see what being an engineer is really like.”

In addition to the Raytheon Technologies x SMASH scholarships, Raytheon Technologies will sponsor more than 600 high school and early college students over five years through two flagship programs: SMASH Academy and SMASH Rising. SMASH alumni will also receive priority consideration when applying for Raytheon Technologies internship programs.