SPC's Innovative HBCU Week-HSI Week Project is a Triumph with Hidden Figures Author Margot Lee Shetterly

September 25, 2018

Public Information Officer


"Mexico is my adopted country, and St. Philip's College is a great representative of Latino and Black heritage and academics. I've done Black History Month celebrations; this is my first Hispanic Heritage Month! Muchas gracias!”

Thus began the Hispanic Heritage Month speaking debut of the Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly for the 2018 St. Philip's College President’s Lecture Series project of seminars and lectures Sept. 20 in labs, auditoriums and e-viewing rooms during a mix of physical and virtual presentations on the college’s campus at 1801 Martin Luther King Drive.

Shetterly is clearly not through making history. Her program was strategic, timely, ambitious and ground breaking: serving diverse audiences who came together with open minds to celebrate the author and STEM education during both Historically Black College and Universities Week and Hispanic Serving Institutions Week at the nation’s only HBCU member institution with HSI member institution status---in the nation’s largest Hispanic-majority population city. That’s the live appearance equivalent of a once-in-a-lifetime alignment of the stars.

Sharing realistic expectations, Shetterly inclusively stressed she's not about to tell such stories as Hidden Figures alone in the future, empowering a room full of future scientists of all ethnicities, genders and experience levels to write commercially in order to bring their stories to scale.

"If you have an amazing story, it's your job to tell the story," she told STEM students during at least one of her two seminars.

“I went to college 30 years ago. I didn’t know writers. Looking back, it’s inevitable that I would write. My mom was a professor at an HBCU, and she nurtured my love for this. The first Black man I knew was a NASA scientist," she said of her father. "I knew Black women were scientists. I realized my experience was not the norm many years later."

St. Philip's College operates at the forefront of providing National Science Foundation-funded STEM research experiences for community college students, particularly special populations of underrepresented genders and ethnicities. These students are learning that every scientist has experienced a setback or two in their careers. The students in the audience for Shetterly’s public lecture after the seminars loosened up when Shetterly shared, "My father actually blew up a lab while he was doing a high school experiment."

"Why didn't I know the contributions of my neighbors? Why didn’t we turn their stories into inspiration?" she shared with students struggling to understand how her formative years in an American STEM community became so important to so many worldwide. Her answers were similar to what many immediately relate to in the San Antonio area that is the nation's second largest cybersecurity sector after Washington, D.C.

"Security---loose lips sink ships," Shetterly said very patriotically.

Then Shetterly addressed the non-merit factors, to ensure fairness and balance.

"Physical separations---due to ethnicity and gender,” and whopping wage disparities. “Black female and male mathematicians and engineers were employed by NASA as (federally classified) sub-professionals, a rung below the (Anglo) men--and that included the Black men. They were paid less," along with persons of several additional ethnicities, said Shetterly.

“Progress happens through many channels,” Shetterly intimately expressed in response to a seminar question from second year college nursing student Gabrielle Tucker. “My path to writing the book including talking to my husband and hearing him say, ‘I've never heard of the women at NASA.’ “

That family conversation might have elevated the research process for Shetterly’s Hidden Figures franchise to the fast track.

“Most of the women at NASA had a college degree,” Shetterly went on to explain. “The job primarily available (otherwise in Virginia to those women) was teaching math. They were recruited during World War II,” much like the Tuskegee Airmen of their era. “They had outstanding educations at HBCUs just like this one,” Shetterly said during one of her St. Philip’s College seminars.

Distinctively, not only was the book Shetterly wrote embraced by the global film industry as the basis of a non-fiction film before her book was embraced by the global publishing industry where Shetterly gave it first dibs, the film was not one that required decades of development. When Tucker asked Shetterly how close the content of the movie is to the content of the book, Shetterly provided a succinct explanation worthy of a "Making Of" feature on a project in any medium, responding, "While I was writing the book, they were making the movie. It was very unusual and very stressful. The movie was based on the events of 1961 and 1962. A very small slice of the book was required for the sake of the movie,” Shetterly shared.

“The truth of the women (in the film) is not sledgehammered. A lot did happen. (Late astronaut and senator) John Glenn did say 'Get the girls to check' (the figures). They did a good job getting the women and their stories to the screen. The movie did a very good job of showing the passion they shared for putting a man into orbit. It was important to show all of that together,” the book’s author said. 

Shetterly shared the relevant backstories-behind-the-backstories for both her physical and virtual audiences until time ran out---and it was clarified that her audiences needed to start doing their part---writing the next great stories.

Shetterly is active in a future project on significant U.S. women professional mathematicians that will be inclusive of all ethnicities and a bevy of corporate and federal employers---such STEM heavy hitters as the Bureau of Standards and the NSA. She concluded her historic first Hispanic Heritage Month business trip by sharing, "I wrote the book I always wanted to read," in Hidden Figures. Find images from the project at the college Facebook page. (SPC images by Julysa Sosa)

About the St. Philip’s College President’s Lecture Series: From La Var Burton (2016) to four original 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders (2011) and FUBU founder and Shark Tank cast member Daymond John (2014), The Honorable Dr. Richard Carmona, 17th Surgeon General of the United States (2014) to The Honorable Julian Bond (2015) and Margot Lee Shetterly (2018), the St. Philip’s College President’s Lecture Series provides live, in-depth opportunities for the college and community to hear noted speakers’ perspectives on local and global issues. Each guest traditionally provides two classroom seminars for college students and meetings with host St. Philip’s College President Dr. Adena Williams Loston and her leadership team, followed by a public seminar in the college’s Watson Fine Arts Center and streamed within the campus. The forum is free and educates students, faculty and staff from the college in addition to community members. Call lecture series committee chair Beautrice Butler at 210-486-2670 for details on the lecture series. Place seating reservations and ask questions of upcoming speakers online, on demand now.