Each year hundreds of alumni arrive on the campus of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) for the annual Homecoming celebration bringing with them advice and wisdom to pass down to a new generation of Rattlers.
Last week, one alumnus decided to stop by a little early to share his story as a featured speaker in the Scholars’ Speak Series hosted by the Division of Student Affairs’ Scholarships Programs office.
William Robinson, Ph.D., a 1996 graduate of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering and former Life Gets Better and National Achievement Scholar, addressed a crowd of current scholarship recipients with whom he shared the story of his journey to FAMU and his life after leaving the “Hill.”
Robinson told students that growing up he had always dreamed of attending the Georgia Institute of Technology but was dismayed to find that the school was out of reach financially. That’s when former President Frederick Humphries and the FAMU Scholarship Program’s team stepped in.
Dedra O’Neal, longtime director of the University’s Scholarship Programs, said Robinson was the perfect candidate for the Life Gets Better Scholarship. After learning of his desire to attend Georgia Tech, program coordinators promised him that they would help him fulfil his dream of studying at the celebrated university after a successful matriculation at FAMU.
“We told him that if he came to FAMU and performed to the same standard that he was in high school, we would make sure that he got into Georgia Tech for graduate school,” O’Neal said.
She explained, “We took these top scholars, who really could have gone to school anywhere if they had the funds, and gave them the opportunity to attend college debt free while providing them internship opportunities at Fortune 500 companies.”
Robinson did, in fact, go on to receive his master’s degree from Georgia Tech in 1998.
Upon graduating from FAMU, he earned a competitive National Science Foundation Fellowship that funded his master’s degree in electrical engineering. He then went on to complete his doctorate in electrical and computer engineering in 2003, and that same year joined the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at Vanderbilt University as an assistant professor.
Robinson currently serves as the associate dean in the School of Engineering at Vanderbilt University where he leads a research group that is tasked with addressing the reliability and security of computing systems, and he investigates the institutional, technical, social, and cultural factors that impact the current underrepresentation of African Americans in engineering faculty positions.
As one of only a few minority engineering professors at Vanderbilt, Robinson said he jumped at the opportunity to come back to FAMU and hopefully inspire students to follow in a path similar to his own.
“I was the first African-American to earn tenure in my department at Vanderbilt, and it’s crazy to think that in 2016 we are still having these kind of firsts,” Robinson said. “Having diversity with people who are knowledgeable in technology and in science in the room allows you to create better products,” he added.