28 Days of Black Excellence: Gerald Smith

28 Days of Black Excellence
28 Days of Black Excellence
28 Days of Black Excellence: Gerald Smith

“When you have that bad day or that bad week, you just got to talk to somebody who’s going to tell you to pick yourself up and get going.”

Gerald Smith


Gerald Smith is the director of the Equity and Inclusion in Engineering Program at the University of Illinois Chicago College of Engineering. In this role, Smith oversees and conducts outreach to underrepresented students who might consider a UIC education, plans programs to support current students at UIC, and meets one-on-one with undergraduates to advise on topics such as major choice, course selection and career planning.

Smith has worked at UIC for more than 12 years. Prior to joining UIC in 2009, he served as an advisory board member and worked for more than 33 years in industry, where he was a manager and executive with IBM Corporation. Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in math and economics from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in marketing from Roosevelt University. 

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Tariq El-Amin  00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin.

Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King  00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.

Clips from 1995 movie “Panther”  00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here? 
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information.

Aisha El-Amin  00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin.

Tariq El-Amin  00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.

Aisha El-Amin 0:34
Hello, good people. Greetings, UIC family and friends. Welcome to UIC’s “28 Days of Black Excellence.” I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, UIC’s is associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. It is my great honor to celebrate the history of Black excellence at UIC with powerful, inspiring and informative conversations with UIC’s alumni, past faculty and past staff. Each day, we have a new guest who will share their story. And today I am completely honored and all the words you could think of. I’m filled with joy. This is both a friend, a mentor, and someone I have so much respect for. Gerald Smith, affectionately known as Gerry, has been connected to UIC since 1993. And so I’m going to hand the mic over to him to tell us what he’s been up to and what has his journey at UIC looked like over the past many years that you’ve been engaged.

Gerald Smith 1:38
Aisha, thank you very much. And it is wonderful to see you. And welcome to our UIC community. Back in 1993. Many of my students today would say, “Gerry, I wasn’t even born yet. I wonder if my mom and dad were born yet?” Well, just as a side, back in 1993, as I was working for the IBM Corporation, already been there over a decade, I was with our leadership in the Chicago region at that time. And it was thought that, how do we strengthen the connection with one of our local universities? That university at the time, known as UIC circle campus and later to become UIC. I was one of the IBM managers that said, I’ll put my hand up. I’d like to get involved and see if I can work with the College of Engineering, at that time, and talk with students from a program standpoint and community standpoint, bring the presence of a Black professional, a Black executive, to the campus, and especially in the technical arena.

IBM being a high-technology company, we were hiring computer science majors, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers at the time. And to date myself just a little bit, they had just begun to introduce the computer engineering and computer science program at UIC. So it brought IBM to the point: How do we connect with this particular progressive college? And so, back in 1993 to about 2010, still working for IBM, I served on the advisory board for the minority engineering program, and for the College of Engineering. So very busy as an IBM executive in my different roles. Management roles. Staff roles. International roles. Along with, you know, taking some time out to give back to the community and to the university. To talk with and help students kind of realize, yeah, I could be there at an IBM. Oh, I could be in, you know, industry.

So that’s what I was doing in keeping myself busy from about 1993 to 2010. Until I decided that I’ll hang up my IBM, you know, background and come to the university and work directly in the college and work for the university to engage and take on the role in minority affairs, at that time, that would allow me to engage and work with high school and middle school kids, their parents, and making a, as I call it, a good decision to select a STEM background. And I’ve been going at it since that time. So just a little bit busy. Just a little bit.

Aisha El-Amin 5:04
Just a little bit. [Laughter]

Gerald Smith 5:06

Aisha El-Amin 5:06
And I know you’ve served on many committees around Black student success at UIC. You served just in so many roles… enrollment, the area of enrollment. So I know folks will have your bio so that they can look at all of the things that you’ve done, but it’s really interesting that you decided to come from IBM after serving in an advisory role for so many years and to help within the university. So as a Black faculty member, in your years here, what are some of your fondest memories and experiences and takeaways that you can share with other faculty, other staff members, who may be starting out, going through it, trying to understand the university?

Gerald Smith 5:52
Good question. I would say, many of my fondest memories — many, it’s not just one, it’s many — is you don’t have to impact hundreds. Just the one or two, five or six young people. Young, African American. Young students of color. Hispanic. Native American. You can spend some time at a point of intervention for them. I remember one of my young students, back in their sophomore year, I sat out with this young African American student and said, “I need you to concentrate. I need you to focus on the important things. Being an engineer or wanting, that desire to be in engineering, that’s the beginning. But you need to focus on the grades, you need to focus on the work, you need to, you know, turn yourself into a lifelong learner.” Now, of course, those terms at the time, you know, were… “Well, what do you mean by lifelong?” I mean, when you’ve only made it to 19, that’s a very short life in the overall scheme of things. But what I was trying to impress was, “I need you to begin to absorb, to really look at your studies.”

But the takeaway was, that conversation in his sophomore year led him to achieve his undergrad diploma and immediately — immediately– apply for graduate studies. And the nice thing is, where I saw this young African American male struggling somewhat with the engineering curriculum, which is very challenging, but he got on the right track. He applied, got into graduate school and ended up with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and having a 4.0 GPA as a graduate student. Now, you would say, “Wow, he caught fire.” Yes, he did. But those kinds of moments are just, that’s just one of the fondest moments. And what I tell my colleagues is you will have that moment where this young person will say, “Well, I’m kind of unsure.” Sit down, listen to them, understand where they are, and just give them a little sage advice. Just say, “You know, I had to work hard. Yes, I stumbled. But you can pick yourself up and raise your goals and achieve what you want by just sticking with it and just a few adjustments here and there.”

We do spend a lot of time as academics worrying about study habits and learning disabilities, the profiles. Those are all important, and I’m not saying that they’re not, but sometimes it’s just a voice of confidence. A reassurance that, yes, you can do it. You were successful in high school. You’re here at a strong university. It is a research university and in this field, you’re going to use not just those talents that you harnessed in high school but you’re going to learn new ones. And yeah, you’re going to stumble. But you can stumble, but then jump and then leap to where you need to get to. And, your job is not done. You want to continue and strive for that excellence.

Because what that excellence gave him, is that he is in one of our technology areas. He is at a company doing well. He is currently in about his third or fourth year at that employer and in their management, leadership rotation. What’s especially important about that is, we’ve just gone through 18 months of challenges and let me tell you, the business community and technical communities are all going through the same challenges. People have been laid off and not working. He has been consistently working. He has jumped and been acknowledged and, in a sense, lifted by his management team to be a future leader. And during these tough times, what I tell you, he really took to heart. You got to work at it, you got to be focused, and you got to believe in yourself. You do all those things, with just a little nudge, it makes a difference. So those are, that’s just one very fond memory that I cherish. But the good news is I can point to at least anywhere from two to three dozen situations like that. And what’s nice is being able to just be that little push, that little nudge to help our students — who are very good students, sometimes they just get a little bit off track — is to get them back on the track, and then get them to their goal.

Aisha El-Amin 11:14
I absolutely love that. I love that. And I’ve seen you do that for students. And that’s why if anyone comes to me, I’m like, “You’re an engineer, you need to see Gerry.” [Laughter] It is true. I know you have dozens of those stories. And as a staff member you know our students, they fall sometimes or they have challenges sometimes, and you’ve been able to help them do that. How do you help yourself as a staff member when you have challenges, right? Because we have new staff members that have challenges as well.

Gerald Smith 11:47

Aisha El-Amin 11:47
So, what advice can you give or examples you can give of how you overcame a challenge?

Gerald Smith 11:54
Well, the thing that I can tell you is, you’ve got to find those supporters and those who believe in you within your department. I’ve been blessed to engage with the UIC leadership and I have found those supporters, those mentors. And mentors come in different flavors. There are professional. There are personal. When you have that bad day or that bad week, you just got to talk to somebody who’s going to tell you to pick yourself up and get going. I’ve been able to identify and earn the confidence, and that mentor relationship with several leaders here at UIC. And so within my department, well, within my college, I have support, and it’s at the top.

And, do you do everything right every day? The answer to that is no, but you know, that you can improve yourself. So if you know you can do self-improvement, keep that in mind. You know you can be successful, you keep that in mind. Yeah, you’re going to have a bad day, we all stumble. You’re not, you know, you’re not robots. You’re not going to be 100% or 99%. If you’re running at about 85% to 90%, that’s a good thing to have. But, you got to have the supporters, people that you could say, “Hey, let’s go to lunch and chat.” Ah, let me take a moment. Or, as I’ve done, you know, you and I. I’m walking down the hall and I say, “Oh, Aisha. How are you doing today?” And you give me a positive reply and remark, that could lift me as I go up to the 28th floor or down to the 26th floor, whichever floor it is.

My point is you have to find mentors. We have, and I will say it is remarkable, here at UIC the number of African-American directors, vice chancellors, associate vice chancellors, associate vice provosts. There are African American, people of color who are in leadership roles. I would recommend to all my staff members and colleagues: Look around. Find someone that you may have some interest in and get to know them. And as you get to know them, they get to know you. They could be that mentor or that person that could just change a bad day into a more positive day. And this could be a colleague up to a leader.

I do remember some, even recently and matter of fact as recently as this morning, one of our leaders, Rex Tolliver, Vice Chancellor Tolliver, I had to reach out to him for some advice. And this morning, like clockwork, before I started an interview, there’s a note of support and some assistance. It might be small to someone else. It was big for me. Rex came through. But you have to earn that right, you have to have that relationship. And so I would state to all my colleagues: Find those leaders, no matter if you’re on west campus, on east campus, that you would like to get to know. And you could have an ulterior motive. Maybe I should get to know more people on west campus. I might end up in the surgical area, you know? Engineering is kind of broad because we’ve got joint appointments for our bioengineers and chemical engineers. Hey, why not me? Maybe I could go over there and maybe do some biotech stuff. But the point is, not that that’s my interest, but the point is, maybe you want to think about that.

Think into the future. Figure out a relationship… As long as they’re there and you can connect with them, it will prove valuable to you. You just don’t know when you need to reach out and touch somebody to help you. And so I would recommend that all of my colleagues first assess within your department, who are your supporters. Then get to know ’em and then leverage that. And then two, within the organization. Where do you think you may want to go five years from now, seven years from now, 10 years from now? Look at that and pick that out. So, my point is, colleagues, look around, figure out what it is you want to do, and kind of work on it. And by the way, if you want some advice, you can always reach out to people like myself, you can reach out to Aisha. You know, we’re just regular people. Just come in. You know, “I’d like to get 30 minutes.” Get 15 minutes. I think you would learn a lot in 15 minutes. Probably learn a lot more from you, Aisha, in 15 minutes…

Aisha El-Amin 17:26
Naw… [laughs].

Gerald Smith 17:26
… than me, but they would learn a lot.

Aisha El-Amin 17:30
Wow, you have given us such great advice. I want to say that we appreciate you, Gerry. We appreciate all that you bring and all that you do. Thank you for being part of this series. Thank you for all the excellence that you bring to the UIC community. And we are just honored to have you as part of the UIC family.

Gerald Smith 17:53
I’m glad you guys took me in. It has been fun. It is a wonderful ride. You know, how many places can you go to see bright people every day? You see young people striving to be more than what they came from. I’m telling you, that’s enough to keep you energized right there. And thank you, Aisha, for giving me this time and being part of the series.

Aisha El-Amin 18:19
Absolutely. Well, we will connect again face to face very soon. Thank you again.

Gerald Smith 18:26
Same here. Take care and have a good day.

Tariq El-Amin 18:28
[Music] Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.

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