Uche Eke is a senior studying computer science. He's also a student athlete and is one of a small number of black students enrolled in the CS program at Michigan. With Black History Month drawing to a close, we caught Uche between his classes and the gym to learn about his time here.
Uche came to Michigan as a freshman from his hometown of Brookeville, Maryland. It was at first a struggle to make the transition; he had attended small private schools and now found himself one amongst over 40,000 students on the huge and sprawling Michigan campus. It's worth also noting that just over 4% of the undergraduate students at Michigan are black. In Engineering overall, that number shrinks to about 2%, and in the computer science program it is currently 1.5%.
"That transition – from high school to Michigan – would have been extremely difficult for me, but one thing that helped was the Summer Bridge program," said Uche. Summer Bridge is offered by the Comprehensive Studies Program in LSA and provides transition support academic, social, and personal support for students with outstanding potential for success at Michigan.
Through the Summer Bridge program, Uche was able to make connections not only with the black community at Michigan, but with others who happened to be student athletes. It's been a network that, while not particularly close, is an important touchstone for staying grounded at Michigan. "I actually spend most of my time with my team, but it is nice to just recognize those people from Summer Bridge on campus and to say hi and occasionally catch up, because we have an experience in common."
Being a student athlete has been both a challenge and a support for Uche. The gymnastics season is from late December through late April, and during season the team is on the road for competition almost every weekend. In addition, the team can be on the road for up to a week at a time for Big 10 and NCAA meets.
In 2017, Uche's sophomore year, the team qualified for NCAA finals and Uche qualified individually for the parallel bars. He was out of town for competition when an EECS 203 exam was scheduled. College rules do not allow for alternate test dates, so the school actually flew a proctor to the competition site so that Uche could take the test on time, in the midst of the competition. "So that hurt my grade!" he laughs.
Fortunately, the team provides community. A number of the gymnasts are engineers, and two of his teammates in his class year are also CS students.
They try to take classes together and to room and study together when on the road. "This has made life easier because we can code together or discuss class, which otherwise is hard to do with other students," said Uche. "I don't know how I'd manage group projects during season otherwise."
"Balancing gymnastics and engineering is very hard, but I really love computer science and plan to pursue a Master's in CSE next," said Uche. His older brother, who is not an athlete but otherwise was a model for Uche to follow through college, received a BSE in Computer Engineering and has returned and is completing his Master's now. Uche also plans to pursue a Master's in CSE, "so I can make a bigger difference in the world."
Uche has family from around the world, in Sweden, Australia, and Nigeria, and he travels to Nigeria at least once every year. "One of the things you notice in Nigeria," said Uche, "is that there is very little tech in people's lives and, when there is, people don't know how to use it." For this reason, he has developed an interest in human-computer interaction, "so that I can help make technology more accessible in underdeveloped regions. Hopefully I'll be even better prepared to do that with a Master's degree."
Uche suffered a shoulder injury prior to this season that required surgery, and which has sidelined him. As a consequence, he is "redshirting" – sitting the entire season out – in order to have one more year of eligibility in collegiate competition. He's taken EECS 485 this academic year and is taking his MDE class now, but even though he doesn't fully participate in practices or in meets, he always attends to support his team. "It might be harder this way, but it's important to me," he said.
With respect to diversity at CSE, Uche said, "Without the network I built at Summer Bridge it would be very challenging here and I would have a hard time feeling welcome. There aren't many black engineers here, but establishing those connections definitely eased the transition to college. I am excited for the opportunity to strengthen the presence of the black community in the CSE grad program at the University of Michigan."
Asked for his final thoughts, Uche said, "Black History Month is a time to reflect on what our parents and our community have done for us, fighting for equality. I'm thankful for the progress that has been made."
Posted March 6, 2019