Kara Odom Walker inspires UD engineering students

As an undergraduate chemical engineering major at the University of Delaware in the 1990s, Kara Odom took classes from Prof. Babatunde Ogunnaike, and she participated in the RISE Program, which was directed by Michael Vaughan.

The three had a reunion of sorts on Saturday, May 13, when the alumna returned to campus as the keynote speaker for the annual RISE student achievement convocation and banquet. Ogunnaike, now dean of engineering, and Vaughan, associate dean for academic affairs, invited Odom (now Odom Walker) to speak at the event.

After completing her bachelor’s degree at UD in 1999, Odom Walker went on to earn a medical degree from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, a master of public health degree from Johns Hopkins University, and a master’s degree in health services research from the University of California, Los Angeles.

On Feb. 6, 2017, she was sworn in as cabinet secretary for Delaware’s Department of Health and Social Services.

“It’s very gratifying to see one of our alumni serve in this very critical position within our state,” said Vaughan. “Kara is a wonderful person and has had a phenomenal career so far. We appreciate that she was willing to give of her valuable time to share her story with our students and encourage them to believe in themselves and to follow their dreams.”

Go for it

The Resources to Insure Successful Engineers (RISE) Program provides an atmosphere of academic enrichment and support for underrepresented groups in engineering.

Odom Walker told the audience that Vaughan and Marianne Johnson, then RISE Program coordinator, were always “in her corner” when she was a student.

“When others didn’t think medical school was for me, they did,” she said. “Dean Vaughan simply told me, ‘Go for it!’

“And that was important for the 21-year old me to hear, just as it is for you. At 18, 19, 20, and 21, you need people in your corner who tell you to go for it because when you’re trying to sort things out alone, it’s the small things like support that comfort you.”

Odom Walker said that although people had told her engineering would be rough, they didn’t say how rough.

“Think back to the moment you decided you wanted to pursue a degree in engineering,” she said. “Did anyone honestly tell you about the long hours you’d spend in the lab? The parties you’d miss because you seriously needed to study? That boyfriend or girlfriend you’d dump because they just couldn’t understand the ‘engineering life?’ I mean, really, I wish someone would’ve just given me a small hint.”

“But you know, it’s OK that they didn’t because just like all of you, I am here as well. I am here as a doctor, a mentor, an engineer, and most importantly, a product of this amazing program.”

The Three S’s

Odom Walker then shared her “three S’s” — support, sacrifice, and self — as the most important principles she learned in her time at UD.

“As minority students, underrepresented and sometimes feeling alone, you will be challenged” she said. “But know that you are valuable, and as long as you have support, you will be OK.”

Sacrifice, she said, breeds greatness.

“So many times, I know you find yourselves sacrificing sleep, time, fun, friendships, and so much more in the name of engineering,” she said. “And I’m sure that so many other times, you contemplate whether the struggle is even worth all that you sacrifice. I want you to know that it is. Know that what you’re giving up now will get you exactly where you want to be, doing what you’re meant to be doing.”

But of the three, Odom Walker said, the most important “S” is self.

“Through the RISE program, I learned how to balance my academics and leadership roles, which made me a better person because at that point, I was no longer stressing myself out,” she said. “Most importantly, I learned how to trust myself. I became so aware of who I was as a minority woman in engineering that I learned how to put my blinders on and keep pushing even when I felt like I couldn’t. And that’s what I want you all to trust yourselves enough to do. It’s all about YOU.”

Inspiring others

Senior Marcos Miranda said he believes that her speech spoke to all of the students in the room.

“Every guest speaker really tries to inspire their audience with their message, but as I listened to Dr. Walker and her incredible journey to where she was today I could feel that inspiration in the air,” he said.

“She was able to understand our struggles and where we were coming from, and as she shared her advice, you could tell she really understood what makes the RISE community incredible.”

Johnson, who is now academic program manager and RISE Program director, sees the annual convocation and banquet as an opportunity for celebration and reflection.

“More than half of the 120 students in our program were recognized for a cumulative GPA of 3.00 or higher, and 20 were recognized for program, college, and university honors,” she said. “Dr. Walker’s remarks reminded me of the same hopefulness we find in each student who begins their educational journey with us and the realization of that hope as they prepare to graduate.”