WILMINGTON — In the mid-1980s, Don Baker had his summers planned perfectly. He anticipated lazy days playing sports, hanging out with his friends and staying up all night without a care in the world.
But his parents had different plans, as they enrolled him into Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering’s (FAME) six-week summer program.
“My family has been tied to the organization since it was founded,” the Wilmington native said. “I couldn’t escape it if I tried.”
FAME, Inc. was established in 1976 and is one of the nation’s oldest nonprofit STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education organizations that prepares and motivates students in grades K-12.
The Wilmington-based institution motivates students with a specific focus on underrepresented minorities and girls to enter college and complete a degree in engineering or other STEM-related fields of study.
“I didn’t know when it was coming, but my parents knew it was coming for me,” Mr. Baker said. “As a sixth-grader going into seventh grade, it was torture. I repeatedly asked why am I going to school in the summer?
Though its overriding goal is to help guide future scientists and engineers, FAME, Inc. exists to provide skill development for students and to put them on the path to college and success after graduation. It has created a curriculum that provides the tools for young people to meet high expectations and thrive in whatever field they choose.
Road to success
Mr. Baker is one of many of the organization’s success stories. He graduated from Morehouse College, majored in political science pre-law, became a diligent leader in and around Delaware, and became the organization’s CEO 11 years ago.
Through FAME, Inc., he hopes to continue to reach and inspire unrepresented minority students, who are now in the same shoes as he was growing up.
“I stand in a position where I am thankful for those that came before me that made this organization a reality,” Mr. Baker said. “I’m also responsible for not only motivating students who look like me to make sure I create a path leading to opportunities that make them globally competitive leaders of tomorrow.”
FAME, Inc. was formed by the DuPont Company, with input from other corporate giants, educators, and community leaders to address the lack of women, African-American, Hispanic and Native-American engineers and scientists in the industry.
“I always thought if people knew the significance of Africa as the birthplace of civilization and African Americans and where we came from, it would help students of color excel,” Mr. Baker said. “
It is also important for our majority students to know that their peers come from greatness and have made significant contributions to science, technology, engineering, and math and aren’t just athletes and entertainers.”
“Black history is world history, and history is for everyone to know — not just one group of people during one month of the year,” he said. “We are inventors, we are dreamers, we are creators. “There is much to learn. Students need to learn their greatness across the board. We share stories of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, women and all people of color.”
FAME, Inc. has various initiative and programmatic offerings. STEMulate Change begins in kindergarten during the spring and sall, and students can attend the STEMulate Change summer session as rising fourth-graders. The CORE Enrichment program begins when students are entering seventh grade.
Students come from all parts of Delaware, as well as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Northern Maryland. There is a $500 fee, which helps defray the cost to provide over 230 additional hours of project-based hands-on learning per student. The fee includes both the summer and school-year programs. Households with more than one child pay an additional $250 for each child.
Since its inception, FAME, Inc. has served over 35,000 students through academic enrichment and outreach. The organization acts as a direct link to industry leaders, with FAME, Inc. students enjoying such benefits as internships, scholarships and opportunities to interact with top executives, engineers, scientists and technology specialists at Fortune 500 organizations, many of whom are themselves alumni of FAME, Inc.
“During most of my elementary and secondary school experience, I was the only African-American male in my classes, which were often the top classes in my schools,” Mr. Baker said.
“I realized the value of FAME, Inc. because I was surrounded by peers and educators who look like me. That’s not to say that most educators and faculty don’t do an excellent job because they do. There was something special about having a CEO and teachers that looked like me. I felt that I wasn’t going to be left out when I raised my hand, and I felt invited and included.”
Mr. Baker said having that type of representation is vital for students enrolled in the organization’s programming. Conversely, FAME students who are not from an underrepresented background have an opportunity to tear down racial, socio-economic, and stereotypical isms that tend to develop early without healthy intellectual engagement.
“We make sure that all students, but particularly girls and Black and Brown students get to see themselves in curriculum and the workforce. How do we do that? We create our own curriculum,” Mr. Baker said. “That’s something that doesn’t often happen in a school setting, and things have changed where people want to see more. Cultural competency in curriculum is vital. We connect with students that have expectations for themselves and their educators.”
CORE applicants must complete an application form and provide a copy of their most current report cards and standardized test scores. Applicants should maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher with good attendance and community activity to be considered for admission. Letters of recommendation from a teacher are required. Students who may not have a 3.0 must interview with Education Director Lakia Belcher.
But for students who don’t meet these requirements, they are encouraged to apply for the STEMulate Change K-sixth-grade initiative.
“One of the things that I wanted to do when I became CEO was to have a bridge program for students who didn’t have 3.0 or higher,” Mr. Baker said. “I created an initiative called STEMulate change. We wanted to see more students who didn’t have a 3.0 still be a part of our organization. We wanted to create opportunities for people to see success stories from people that looked like them and grew up in the same places they came from.”
Mr. Baker has a vision to expand Fame, Inc. into workforce development and innovation.
“We want to focus on our relationship with industries,” Mr. Baker said. “We want to focus on workforce development and align meaningful employment for our students and their family members.”
FAME, Inc. introduced Tallo, a digital platform to Delaware and the surrounding region that connects talent to opportunities, said Mr. Baker.
Tallo helps foster engagement between high school students, college students, job seekers, corporate partners, post-secondary institutions and organizations by serving as a networking platform that caters to users’ skills. Users build online portfolios and profiles to showcase their test scores, classes, certificates, experience and extracurriculars, and future career and education interests.
The Red Clay Consolidated School District was first to institute the platform in Delaware.
“One of the greatest crimes in this country is how the education system does not include women and Black and Brown faces within the curriculum,” Mr. Baker said.
“To not show me how great I can be or to not show me people who look like me is a tremendous disservice and borderline criminal, and I intend to position FAME to disrupt the previously acceptable norms by not allowing this to continue to happen.”
“At FAME, Inc., we exist to inspire career confidence, so students know that it’s possible to be great,” Mr. Baker added.
“All students are keenly aware of the racial injustices and inequities in education. Enough is enough. We, as educators and talent seekers, need to reach students where they are. What kid doesn’t love sneakers? That’s STEM too. If you don’t tell me that I can be in spaces that are interesting to me, I will think that spaces are not for me, but we have to carry these messages and to teach life skills to mold great people.”
Mr. Baker said he doesn’t refer to FAME, Inc. as a program, but rather as an institution because of its rich history of successfully preparing students for the workforce.
“When people think about a program, they tend to think of something on a small scale that may impact a few hundred people,” Mr. Baker said. “But we as an institution have brought solutions and technology to the state of Delaware and surrounding regions that have the capacity to impact tens of thousands of students. This year, potentially, we’re serving over 15,000 learners through statewide initiatives.”
But through it all, Mr. Baker hopes FAME, Inc. has the same impact on students as it did for him for many years to come.
“I don’t want any awards or accolades,” Mr. Baker said. “If something that we did can make a difference for someone’s legacy or changes their family’s trajectory, that’s the ultimate goal. I’m hopeful that the work my colleagues and I are doing here at FAME, Inc. continues to put people in a position to unlock their potential. That’s the greatest honor we can ever have.”
“When we think big and dream big, we strive to have a big impact on the world. We want students and learners touched by FAME to truly believe that they have the power and skills to create a better world for us all,” he said.