NSBE - Convention 2018 - 53

NSBE Jr. Advisor Receives Honor
for 'Helping People'
B y C i ndy Atoji

P

COMPTROLLER OF MARYLAND

eople helping people: that's what STEM activist Rhonda
She was working as an engineer for the Federal Aviation
Thomas has long been about, creating opportunities
Administration when she saw local kids in the community befor underserved youth to explore careers in science,
ing satisfied with merely getting a high school degree and a job
technology, engineering and mathematics. She creat a big box store so they could buy a car.
ated LEAP Forward, Inc. in 1998, a nonprofit organization
"Young people weren't making a lot of good choices, so I
based in Calvert County, Md., that encourages kids to "learn,
saw a need to help direct and inspire kids for a better future,"
excel, achieve, perform,
says Thomas, who is proud
explore, and rise." Her comof the fact that of 12 C.A.S.H.
mitment to making an impact
graduating high school seniors,
was recently recognized by a
75 percent will be pursuing
statewide award. She received
STEAM majors in college.
the William Donald Schaefer
When Thomas received
Helping People Award for her
the Helping People Award
public service.
from Maryland Comptroller
LEAP Forward, Inc., closes
Peter Franchot, she immedithe achievement gap by providately started lobbying to bring
ing STEM literacy, academic
benefit to the organization.
enrichment, tutoring and menAttendees at the award ceremotoring, and financial assistance.
ny were exposed to information
Its programs include a NSBE
about all of LEAP's programs
Jr. chapter named Creative
and ways they could contribute.
and Striving Hard (C.A.S.H.).
She and Franchot discussed
Launched only five years ago,
internships for LEAP students,
C.A.S.H. has already earned
and Thomas is also hoping the
the NSBE Jr. Chapter of the
award will help her raise funds
Year title, in 2017, and had
for her community efforts.
two of its members selected to
The award wasn't the first
receive NSBE's highest honor,
for Thomas, a NSBE lifetime
Rhonda Thomas, founder and chapter advisor of C.A.S.H. NSBE Jr., receives the
the Golden Torch Award, this
member who has been lauded
William Donald Schaefer Helping People Award from Maryland Comptroller Peter
year: Malcolm Roy Brown and
frequently for her work with
Franchot. (Feb. 21, 2018)
Kenadi Parran Wilkerson were
LEAP, but she is quick to say
named Pre-College Initiative
that she's proud that LEAP and
(PCI) Students of the Year.
C.A.S.H. make many firsts possible for disadvantaged students.
"I don't know where we would be without the support and
"The first time attending a convention like NSBE's and, for
connections that LEAP provides," says Brown.
many, the first airplane ride because of that; the first time
None of these accomplishments would have been possible
meeting professional engineers; the first time learning about
without Thomas' own life story, which includes being rescued
new STEM topics and ideas: I am proud of opening up all these
from underachievement. She credits the intervention of a
firsts for students and exposing kids to new experiences," says
thoughtful high school counselor, Wallace Leeper, whose name
Thomas.
and legacy LEAP pays tribute to. Leeper worked tirelessly to
Wilkerson, the PCI Student of the Year, is grateful to her.
direct local Calvert County students toward the engineering
"I am grateful to LEAP Forward, Inc. for establishing
profession in the 1970s. Those students included Thomas, who
C.A.S.H. NSBE Jr.," she says. "I've become a more confident
had not considered an engineering career before she spoke
leader, expanded my knowledge and gained exposure to stuwith him.
dents with common goals and professionals working in STEM
"I didn't even know what an engineer was," says Thomas,
fields. I am but one of the many students that LEAP Forward,
who, thanks to Leeper's encouragement, went on to become an
Inc. and C.A.S.H. NSBE Jr. have positively impacted." ■
electrical engineer and the first African-American woman to
graduate from a joint academic and employment program with
Cindy Atoji is a Boston-based blogger and editor who specializes
Tennessee State University and Patuxent Naval Air Test Center.
in diversity issues and technology writing.

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| CONVENTION 2018 | 53


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