“MIT was the first place that I felt normal,” says Leslye Miller Fraser ’78, SM ’80, a member of the MIT Corporation and a retired environmental appeals judge for the US Environmental Protection Agency. As a young Black woman who liked science and math, “I was different from my peers,” says Leslye, who was also the first Black valedictorian at her high school on Long Island, New York. At MIT, she felt “like a fish who was finally put back in the water.”
Leslye thrived at MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. The highlights of her MIT years include being a charter member of the MIT Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and the Lambda Upsilon Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., MIT’s first sorority. She also met her husband, Darryl Fraser ’80, at the Institute. “That’s at the top of the list,” she says.
Darryl was a fellow chemical engineering major who grew up in Los Angeles and came to MIT’s attention as a result of his PSAT score. With encouragement from members of MIT’s Black Student Union, Darryl “took a risk and went all the way from California to Massachusetts,” where he says he found a welcoming and inclusive Black community. He recently retired as corporate vice president of communications for Northrop Grumman Corporation. And not long ago, Leslye and Darryl celebrated two milestones: their 41st wedding anniversary this past June and the arrival of their first grandchild—a boy—in November 2020.
MIT, and engineering, have remained at the heart of their family for decades; their son and daughter-in-law are MIT graduates, and their daughter received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from Stanford. Darryl’s brother and his wife also graduated from MIT. For more than 30 years, Leslye and Darryl have interviewed MIT applicants. They are the past regional co-chairs of the MIT Educational Council for the Washington, DC, metro area, and they currently co-chair MIT’s Annual Giving Leadership Circle. Last spring, they created a fellowship fund at the School of Engineering to support historically underrepresented graduate students.
Through the fellowship, they hope to add momentum to MIT’s diversity-building efforts and pay forward the skills and values of MIT that have served them throughout their careers. “At MIT, you learn to challenge yourself, develop resilience, and really go after hard problems,” Darryl says, noting that these skills were key to his success as an engineer and business leader in the aerospace industry. Leslye believes that MIT’s culture of collaboration and innovation stays with graduates as they enter the workplace, elevating their expectations of their employers and their own careers. Both noted that MIT does a good job admitting and graduating undergraduate students from underrepresented groups, but more is needed to address diversity representation among graduate students and faculty.
“The talent is there”
As accomplished African American MIT grads, Darryl and Leslye have both encountered the presumption that they are exceptional. “We aren’t unicorns,” Darryl says, “yet when we entered the workforce there was a perception that ‘You must be different,’ which is really a way of saying, ‘You don’t match my perception of a young Black kid from the inner city.’” The true difference, he says, is opportunity: “Someone opened the door for me.” Their fellowship is one of many ways the pair hope to open doors for others. “There are qualified, underrepresented minorities out there,” says Darryl, and a great need for skilled engineers and increased diversity in the workforce. “The talent is there; the intent of our gift is to help MIT tap into it.”
The practices of service, mentoring, and giving back are “built into the fabrics of both our families,” says Leslye. “Our parents came up in the civil rights era, so like many African Americans in our generation, we were shaped by those values and taught that we’re interconnected and have a responsibility to help others.” The couple see their contributions to MIT, and the many organizations they serve and support, as a means of sharing the gifts they have received. “If we have a family motto,” says Darryl, it is the biblical passage, ‘To whom much is given, much will be required.’”
“MIT is phenomenal at solving complex problems that we put our minds to,” says Leslye, noting that increasing diversity in STEM fields is one of the key challenges of our time. “I believe MIT can be a role model for other institutions in significantly increasing underrepresented minorities within the graduate population and the faculty,” she says, adding to MIT’s work underway to ensure a diverse undergraduate population.
Darryl says he hopes their fellowship also inspires more of the incredible innovation he has seen from MIT students over the years, “whether it’s advances in medical prosthetics, or computing, or music, or energy. It’s because of the people who are drawn here that MIT has a critical role to play in this world.”
“The beauty of MIT is in the faculty and the students,” says Leslye. “I am always in awe of these young people and their accomplishments.”
These two people should be celebrated for their earned accomplishments and the content of their character. I could not care less about their skin color. I part ways with their notion that diversity of immutable characteristics should play any role in the selection of students. We are all individuals and should be treated as such.