Pax River, MD – Reading magazine pages plastered to the walls of a shanty in rural Alabama by the light of a kerosene lamp, Dr. David Wilson became transfixed by the power of the written word.

So much so that he became the first in his family to go to college, despite his father’s reservations, and now serves as president of Morgan State University. Wilson spoke as part of NAVAIR’s National Black History Month event here Feb. 21 with the theme, “The Crisis in Black Education.”

Wilson said courage was what helped the formation of historically black colleges and universities such as Morgan State, and courage was what spurred him to pursue college.

The youngest of 10, Wilson spent more days out of school than in it, helping his sharecropper father pick cotton, okra and peanuts. In a home without electricity or plumbing, his mother encouraged the children to paste magazine pages onto the walls to keep out the wind and cold. It was within these pages that Wilson said he first learned “the magic of education, the transformative aspects of education.”

He urged the 475 employees — and the Morgan State alumni and students from Great Mills High School and Spring Ridge Middle School who also attended — to help spread that same magic to young African-American students.

“Open the doors and enable students of color, in particular, to find out what opportunities there are,” he said. “Great and remarkable things arise out of the power of the moment, out of the power of the individual. Progress is made possible by an environment that nurtures it and people who have the courage to move forward.”

While historically black colleges and universities comprise approximately 3 percent of U.S. higher education, they enroll more than 300,000 students annually. NAVAIR has had a formal educational partnership with the university since 2013 to increase its recruiting pipelines and pique interest in new college graduates to apply.

“[These institutions] are producing talent to support America’s talent and innovation,” he said. “Their contributions have also led to a more secure nation.”

He listed just a few of a long line of venerable alumni: Martin Luther King, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, and numerous scientists and engineers. African-American students, he said, were long shunned from U.S. colleges and universities and had an uphill battle to gain an education.

“They had faith in democracy and faith in self. They had enormous vision and unwavering courage,” he said. “They had to dream what they never had and what had been forbidden to them — the training of their minds, and not just their hands.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2015, just 22.9 percent of African-Americans age 25 and over held at least a bachelor’s degree, as compared to 32.5 percent of the total population. At NAVAIR, close to 30 percent of African-American employees have at least a bachelor’s degree out of the more than 2,300 African-American employees.

Before Wilson’s remarks, Dr. Ronald Smiley, NAVAIR’s national director for Avionics, Sensors and Electronic Warfare Department, recognized Adrienne Somerville with a plaque for her contributions to NAVAIR’s African-American Pipelines Advisory Team (APAT) as a co-lead from 2012 to 2016.

To end the event, Patuxent River members of APAT — Stephen Cricchi, Holly Kellogg, Somerville and Maria Thorpe — hosted a panel discussion on the team’s four pipeline focus areas:

  • African-American planning and development opportunities
  • African-American workforce recruitment
  • African-American female talent
  • High-grade talent pools for key leadership roles, such as senior executive service

Thorpe provided insight on NAVAIR’s new centralized hiring and special recruitment efforts at events such as the Black Engineer of the Year Awards ceremony, while Somerville discussed how employees can use NAVAIR’s Career Guidebook to plan their careers.

“We seek to excite, inspire, educate and, ultimately, employ,” Kellogg said, listing partnerships with the National Society of Black Engineers and internship programs as some of the ways NAVAIR is focusing on educational outreach.

Cricchi urged attendees to consider mentoring to encourage, inspire, recruit and retain new and up-and-coming employees. “Mentoring opens up your aperture,” he said. “It’s our role as supervisors to mentor people and push them out of their comfort zones.”

NAVAIR Comptroller Jerry Short closed the event by reinforcing NAVAIR leadership’s commitment to diversity and inclusion as foundational to mission success. Watch the new “We are NAVAIR” diversity and inclusion video.