Creating a path for those who follow
Phillip Barnes puts STEM careers within minority students’ reach
Phillip Barnes first began to envision a career in engineering as a young boy who admired Black Vulcan, the only black hero in the 1970s-era Super Friends cartoon.
Barnes remembers being captivated by Vulcan’s powers to release electricity from his hands and transform his body with energy. Impressed by all the voltage Vulcan packed, he set his sights on an electrical engineering career at a young age.
By the time Barnes reached the 11th grade at Shaw High School in East Cleveland, he was on his way to realizing that dream. Helping him envision a path was the Inroads program, which provides minority students with internship opportunities at Fortune 500 companies. During a stint at Parker Hannifin Corp., he learned how to prepare for interviews and dress for success. He also toured several colleges, but Ohio State’s top engineering program and a scholarship from the Office of Minority Affairs simplified his college choice.
“Ohio State is a major school that mattered,” Barnes says. “I knew attending a Big Ten school would be impressive and, of course, having a great football team was also an incentive.”
One of few African American males majoring in electrical engineering at Ohio State during the late 1990s, Barnes says he was fortunate to have an influential mentor in Minnie McGee, former assistant dean of the Minority Engineering Program. Barnes recalls McGee setting high standards of excellence and working hard to increase the retention rate among underrepresented students.
“Dean McGee provided access to important networks of people to enable black and Hispanic students to succeed,” Barnes says. “She understood that we needed to see role models who looked like us. She also taught us that we had a responsibility once we got that great job. We had to do something with it to help those coming behind us.”
After completing his bachelor’s degree, Barnes entered Ohio State’s biomedical engineering graduate program and earned his doctorate in 2010. While in graduate school, he and fellow student Anishka Turner, whom he later married, started a study table in Thompson Library for youngsters from the east side of Columbus. Barnes connected with the students through these math and science tutoring sessions and related to their desire to excel.
“The kids were hungry for knowledge just as I was,” Barnes says. “I encouraged them to keep working hard, even if it took them two hours to solve a math problem. I wanted to teach them how to study and how to build a fundamental skill set for college.”
Barnes is now a senior software engineer for Intel in Phoenix. When he moved to Arizona, he and Anishka started an Ohio State endowment for African American undergraduates. He also worked with underrepresented high school students by organizing tours to expose them to Ohio State’s electrical engineering labs, and he became a member of Real Engagement through Active Philanthropy (REAP), a Phoenix-based giving circle that supports young black men interested in STEM fields.
Still, with all that to his credit, news that he had earned a 2017 Diversity Champion Award from The Ohio State University Alumni Association came as a surprise.
“I didn’t think that I had a paper trail for diversity work,” Barnes says. “I want to continue building professional relationships with people who will work with me, not only through financial giving but also in mentorship.”
Barnes has several short-term goals to help minority youth prepare for STEM professions. He wants to establish a pipeline between high schools and Ohio colleges for students interested in those programs. And he plans to start a scholarship to honor Anishka, who passed away in 2015. The scholarship would provide college options to students who share Anishka’s home country, The Bahamas, and give priority to those from Cat Island, where she grew up.
As Barnes works toward these objectives, he is wholeheartedly applying the lessons he learned from McGee. He knows it takes not only talent but resources for students to achieve their dreams. And he is determined to support as many as he can.