Profiles / Rising S.T.E.M. Stars

I got to MIT, by Accident.

By: Dylon Rockwell, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

I am consistently asked how I got to MIT; my typical answer is by accident.

I was at an air show, the ones held in small airports where small planes do crazy acrobatic tricks for an admiring crowd. The show took place right before school started my senior year, I always loved airplanes and stuff dealing with space so I just had to go. I was so amazed by the show I had to meet these amazing pilots. After talking to a few of them, I found most of the pilots were retired from the Air Force, who went to the Air Force Academy; however, their was one Black pilot. He was from Purdue University and began that day advocating highly for me to go to Purdue to pursue a degree in engineering. He talked to me pretty consistently about the college application process. I knew every since I heard stories about my uncle flying planes in the Air Force that I wanted to be an aerospace engineer, but I had never met a black man who flew and helped design the planes. He encouraged me to apply to several schools to pursue engineering.

I knew college was going to be really expensive, because my sister was getting ready to graduate from college and she complained about her student loans.I knew there was no way for me to afford any decent schools growing up in a single parent household where the single parent wasn’t employed. I also knew it would be doubly hard since my twin brother was graduating too and had begun looking at colleges.Then, one day I received a letter from Harvard University saying that if your parents made less than $60,000 that no loans or other financial contributions were required. I was like “Thank God!” Later that August, I went to a college fair and found a college recruiter from Harvard I thought he would be the answer to my prayers and instantly grant me admission to Harvard. I told them that I wanted to study aerospace engineering and he explained to me that I should apply to MIT. I was initially disappointed and confused, then I looked MIT up and found that it was the nations premiere engineering school, and it had a similar financial aid program as Harvard.

So long story short I applied to MIT and got in, and though the college recruiter helped point me in the right direction, the key to my success was the pilot who was an influential role model that it show me that my dream was possible. This experience showed me that I could spark someone’s ambition by simply aspiring to be a professional of color, and more specifically an engineer. By talking to students in my hometown of Dallas, Texas about college, I found that students really identified with me and where I came from. Now, several months later students are contacting me and asking for advice on how to apply to colleges and universities.

I do not indefinitely know what part of my story resonated with each student I spoke to but I think in some way or another I conveyed that college was their ticket out . Out of the hood, out of worrying about how they’re going to support their younger siblings, out of being another bad statistic, and out of the little leagues into the big leagues. I told them what my brother often would say to me “you can’t be the best gladiator if you’re not in the coliseum”, meaning you must be in a place where you can be exposed to the very best people your field has to offer in order to be the best. High school students of color have high aspirations in a various fields, but most don’t know how to get there, because they have never been there before, their parents have never been there, and there are too few role models and no road maps. They need other people of color to show them how to get there, just like I needed this pilot. I believe all students are innately talented, and some have dreams of how they might use these talents to change the world. Those students do not require an inspiration to achieve their aspirations; but they would benefit from the reassurance and guidance of a mentor. All it takes is one person to recognize a student’s talent, believe in their potential, cultivate their abilities, and develop skills that could help them change the world.

Dylon R. Rockwell is a senior at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pursuing a degree in aeronautics and astronautics. He has served in many other capacities at MIT as an associate advisor for freshmen and chairman of the National Society of Black Engineers at MIT. He also participated in MIT’s student government and the Gordon Engineering Leadership and Community Catalyst Programs. He is the recipient of the Institute Distinguished Dedication Award. He is also the co-founder of a mentoring program called Project LEAD, where first-year college student mentors are paired with first-year high school mentees. Over the span of four years, mentors are tasked with guiding their mentees through high school and into college. Dylon is currently interning in the Legislative Affairs group at The Boeing Company, the largest aerospace company in the world, working on issues regarding NASA’s Human Space Flight Program and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.