When nonprofit STEM NOLA founder Dr. Calvin Mackie takes the stage at the University of Arizona Global Campus spring commencement ceremony, he says he’ll celebrate the accomplishments of this year’s graduates with one single word: hope.
“Hope is that little voice in your head that whispers ‘maybe’ when the whole world is screaming ‘no,’” says Dr. Mackie. “Education is supposed to give you hope, it’s supposed to give you strength, and it’s supposed to give you the power to think you can take on the world.”
Hope, as he explains, is what motivates today’s students to overcome adversity. Whether it be the intangible institutional structures that can hold you down or the everyday challenges of balancing reality with your dreams, hope can make any success possible.
If there’s one person who can embody the meaning of hope and articulate the positive message clearly to a group of graduates who are moving on to their next chapter after overcoming one of life’s greatest challenges, it is entrepreneur, author, and professional speaker, Dr. Mackie. Continue reading to learn more about his inspiring story and his ability to inspire and offer a message of hope to graduates.
A Scholar and a Game Changer
Dr. Mackie is one of the most prominent figures in the fields of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) — as well as education, entrepreneurship, and professional speaking. He founded the nonprofit STEM NOLA in 2013 and has helped expose more than 125,000 students – many from underserved and low-income backgrounds – to STEM-based learning since then.
Dr. Mackie admits his first experiences as a student on a college campus were intimidating.
“I saw people using words in ways I was never exposed,” he recalls. Despite this, he says it was also motivating because he longed to overcome stereotypes and labels that had kept other Black students like him from succeeding.
“As a student, I was always asking the question, ‘Why are these kids so bright?’” he notes. “That pushed me to believe.”
Proving that anyone can become a lifelong learner regardless of their socio-economic status, Dr. Mackie graduated Magna Cum Laude from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and was a member of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society. He also earned a BS, master’s degree, and PhD in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
During his academic career, Dr. Mackie served as an instructor of mathematics at Morehouse, further bolstering his credentials and earning him a post-graduate position at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. While at Tulane, he pursued research-related to topics such as heat transfer, fluid dynamics, energy efficiency, and renewable energy — which helped him receive a promotion to tenured associate professor. Dr. Mackie’s contributions during his time at Tulane University helped advance the fields of mechanical engineering and renewable energy, further demonstrating his expertise and dedication to his work.
The Storm and the Calm
For more than a decade, Dr. Mackie inspired generations of STEM students at Tulane, until his career path took an unexpected turn after the university disbanded multiple programs — including mechanical engineering — following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Committed to staying in Louisiana, Dr. Mackie forged a new career path focused on entrepreneurship, consulting, and professional speaking, with an overwhelming desire to help rebuild the community devastated by the storm. That year, former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco appointed him to the 33-member board of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the guiding agency that led the state’s rebuilding efforts.
The opportunity set off a series of dominoes in Dr. Mackie’s professional life, as he soon became a leading voice for social, political, and cultural change following the disaster. He appeared in Spike Lee’s HBO documentary about Hurricane Katrina, called, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts,” in 2006, and its successor, “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise” in 2010. Dr. Mackie was also named chair of the Louisiana Council on the Social Status of Black Boys and Black Men, a position that allowed him to help create policies and programs to positively impact the quality of life for Black males and families in the state.
In 2016, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards appointed Dr. Mackie to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority – the state entity with authority to “articulate a clear statement of priorities and to focus development and implementation efforts to achieve comprehensive coastal protection for Louisiana.” The governor also appointed him to the Louisiana Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Advisory Council, which helps students achieve improved access to STEM education, participation, and advancement.
The Impact of STEM NOLA
When asked why he’s dedicated so much of his career to STEM fields, Dr. Mackie responds with a quote from America’s second president, John Adams: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.”
Dr. Mackie adds: “You build a nation with people that can do something, and STEM tools can be used to build a better world. We’re human doers before we are human beings. The arts and humanities are just as important — the humanities speak to our being, the STEM speaks to our doing.”
That belief led to the founding of STEM NOLA in 2013. The organization designs and delivers activities, programs, and events that bring inspiration, motivation, and training to all STEM stakeholders, and notably children with fewer advantages. In addition to helping tens of thousands of kids academically, more than 80% of STEM NOLA participants are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches.
By empowering communities of young people with the tools and resources needed to succeed in STEM, Dr. Mackie is inspiring the next generation of professionals in fields — information technology and computer software technology, among others — that will make a great difference in the coming decades. Importantly, he is addressing the diversity challenge in STEM, where women and Black and Hispanic workers are vastly underrepresented.
Dr. Mackie’s commitment to his community extends beyond the aforementioned government appointments. As an internationally recognized speaker, labeled a “Champion of Change” by former President Barack Obama’s administration, he has previously spoken at college commencements and is an active member of the National Speaker Association and the 100 Black Men of Metro New Orleans — which seeks to ”address four key areas to strengthen the future of black youth: mentoring, education, health and wellness, and economic empowerment.”
He has also become an accomplished author, writing a memoir titled “A View from the Roof: Lessons for Life and Business,” which is now utilized in college classrooms; as well as “Grandma’s Hands: Cherished Moments of Faith and Wisdom,” which won the Silver Medal in the Gift/Keepsake category at the 2012 Living Now Book Awards.
My Thing Is Life: A Q&A With Dr. Calvin Mackie
Ahead of the UAGC Spring 2023 commencement, Dr. Mackie spoke with the University about the theme of his commencement address and what he’s learned from his life in academics and beyond.
UAGC: Do you recall the speakers at your college graduations?
Dr. Mackie: Yes, one, [lawyer, activist, and author] Randall Robinson. He just died, but he was the graduation speaker at Morehouse in 1990. That was around the time we were fighting to free South Africa and [Nelson] Mandela. He spoke to our existence.
UAGC: Did you ever meet him?
Dr. Mackie: Yes, might have been 10–15 years later. He was in town giving a speech or a book tour. I went up to him and reminded him of his commencement address and thanked him for the speech and the work that he was doing.
UAGC: So many graduates enter the workforce looking for a mentor. How important is having a mentor, not just as you begin your career, but throughout your career?
Dr. Mackie: I tell students that if they have a mentor, ask your mentor, “Who’s your mentor?” If that person doesn’t have a mentor, you don’t want them mentoring you. You need someone you can go to and bounce things off the wall.
UAGC: Who was one of your mentors?
Dr. Mackie: Dr. Carolyn Meyers, the first female professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. I studied under her and would not be “Doctor” Mackie today without her. I believe in mentoring, I believe in mentors, I believe in the entire process.
UAGC: What was the greatest lesson you learned in your career?
Dr. Mackie: I tell people I have four degrees, but I actually have five. The greatest accomplishment was my fifth, my marriage license, and my family [wife Tracy and sons Myles Ahmad and Mason Amir]. I love them and we operate as a unit. The basic unit of existing is family, and I always wanted that. I wanted people to come home to, and somebody to love, and we work together as a unit. I have a son in college now at Howard, I have a son that’s actually touring Yale today with my wife. He’s trying to decide where to go to college. We fight, cry, love, laugh, travel. We do it all together. No matter what’s going on in the world, when I go home, I’m alright.
UAGC: Beyond hope, what’s your message to graduates?
Dr. Mackie: My thing is life. L-I-F-E. Life is living intelligently forever. Get up every day and live your life to the fullest. After Katrina, I lost my community, my church, and my position. But what else is there in life, but to get up every day and live?