Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series of feature stories that highlight diversity on Florida Poly’s campus and celebrate Black History Month.
Florida Polytechnic University junior Gabrielle Simms was raised in a place where opportunities to prosper are not abundant. And opportunities for women engineers are even fewer.
“I grew up in a poor and tough neighborhood,” said Simms, from Nassau, Bahamas. “There was a lot of crime and drugs, but it was just like any other community around us.”
One of six children, Simms was always seen by her family as “the smart one.” She was destined to be the first in her family to go to college. Nobody she grew up with had that goal, but she was not like everyone else.
“What was the other option for me? Work this hard and maintain a 3.0 to graduate to then not use it,” she said. “If doing four more years of school promises me a better job, then I’m going to take that option,” added Simms, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering with a concentration in renewable energy.
Scholarships in the Bahamas are not usually for students in the public education system, Simms explained. So when she was approached to come to Florida Poly with a full scholarship to study her passion, engineering, she was in disbelief.
“The Public School Scholarship Program was brand new in the country and representatives were looking for talented students to offer these great opportunities to,” she said. “There was only one spot to come to Florida Poly for engineering, and I was the student they chose.”
Once on campus, Simms said she had a hard time fitting in initially. Few people looked like her, and the environment was drastically different than what she was used to.
“Coming from a predominantly black country to a predominantly white school was a big change for me,” she said. “Back home I wasn’t a ‘black female.’ Everyone there is black. But here, I’m labeled as ‘black female.’ I realized that yes, I’m black and that’s a thing in this country.”
Not intimidated by labels, Simms decided that to fit in she had to get involved in student life. She became president of the university’s Diversity Club and immediately started working on providing support for minorities on campus. The club meets twice a month to discuss topics around race and ethnicity, cultural backgrounds, gender identity, and sexual orientation, among others.
“We’ve created a safe place for students to feel comfortable being who they are, free to express themselves and ask questions,” said Simms. “It also brings a good opportunity to listen to others who may not agree with us, in a space of respect and inclusion.”
Besides the Diversity Club, Simms got involved in other diversity-driven initiatives on campus within the Society of Women Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers. She also serves on the University’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and is a Presidential Ambassador.
Simms is determined to graduate and use her engineering degree to continue helping others. She would like to travel to developing countries to help them advance or improve their renewable energy systems. Simms said she’s also committed to advocate for equal rights in the United States.
“People look at me like I’m rare, a black woman in STEM. With that label you’re not afforded the same opportunities”, Simms said.
“But in America, you get the opportunity to fight and make a difference.”
Assistant Director of Communications