Harrison JenkinsHarrison Jenkins ’25, a mechanical engineering major, is a 2022 recipient of the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship, an award that connects the nation’s top aerospace companies with talented Black students. 

Jenkins is one of 39 undergraduates nationwide to be selected for 2022 fellowship, which includes a scholarship, mentoring, and a challenging internship in the aerospace field. This summer, he will be interning at lunar exploration company iSpace in Denver.

According to a press release, the fellowship honors Smith, a former head of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space transportation office. In her youth, Smith (then Patricia Jones) was among the Black students to “integrate Tuskegee High School, and was a plaintiff in a landmark case that integrated the public schools in Alabama,” as upheld by the US Supreme Court. The fellowship program aims to address the “under-representation of Black and African-American employees in the US aerospace workforce.”

Jenkins, who is from Oakland, CA, plays defensive back on Lehigh’s football team. He is also involved in Posse Scholars, a program that recruits young leaders from diverse backgrounds and connects them with top universities. 

The following is a conversation with Jenkins (pictured, right, and below, working with Lehigh University Aerospace Club president Alex Perlman '23) about his achievements and his first-year experiences at Lehigh.

What got you interested in aerospace engineering?

Growing up, space was always something I found fascinating in school. It was something I could always kind of get lost in. So I knew I wanted to do something in astronomy or astrophysics, and I also love working on hands-on projects. Engineering was kind of a natural choice and aerospace engineering was the combination of those two things.

How did you decide to attend Lehigh?

Through Posse Scholars and football. Posse partners with a group of students from nontraditional backgrounds and helps them gain admission to top private universities. I knew I wanted to play football at a high level and Posse connected me with Lehigh, so it seemed like a perfect fit.

What was the selection process like for the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship?

It was very similar to Posse’s selection process. There are three rounds of interviews and in the first two rounds, they get to know you and gauge your interests. Then in the third round they match you with a company that you might like to work with. They paired me with iSpace and I am excited to intern with them this summer in Denver.

What are some challenges you faced during your first year at Lehigh?

Time is definitely hard to come by. The football team does a good job of helping us with time management, but nearly all of my time I’m not at school, I’m at football, and sometimes it can be tough. It really comes down to me being as disciplined as I can and relying on my resources.

How have your classes been so far?

I have really enjoyed nearly all my classes thus far. I’ve had some really great teachers, and the subjects are interesting. One of my engineering classes actually focused on what an important skill writing is for engineers, which definitely surprised me. They emphasized that you can have the best idea in the world, but if you can't effectively communicate it to people, then it's really not worth anything. That was a key takeaway for me in that class, because you usually don’t associate engineering with writing, but they proved that it really is crucial.

Alex Perlman and Harrison Jenkins, Lehigh University Aerospace Club
Tell us about your involvement in the Lehigh Aerospace Club. 

I was really excited to have the opportunity to work with the aerospace engineering club this past year because it presents so many great opportunities to get really intriguing, hands-on experience with really interesting engineering projects. During the fall semester, we were mostly planning out the general design of our entry into the AIAA Design, Build, Fly competition. The most work really kicked off over winter break, though, when we started to 3D model the plane and all of its components with our CAD software remotely. During this time, I was given the chance to design the conveyor belt system that will allow us to deploy packages from the fuselage with precision. 

Once winter break was over, we got to work manufacturing the parts that we modeled and the real fun began. Just before spring break, I finished the prototype system while the team was testing the flight capabilities of the plane itself. Now, I’ll be making some improvements to the design of the system and adjusting the size based on the dimensions of the final plane, so we can integrate it and begin more testing before the competition. 

What positions are you interested in aerospace engineering?

I am not completely sure yet. Right now I’m interested in robotics, propulsion, and solar energy, but I don’t have a specific role in mind. I’m excited to figure out what I like most as I take more classes and gain experience this summer.

Who are some important mentors in your life?

The first people that come to mind are my mom, my uncle, and my Posse mentor. My mom has always been there for me, and I’ve modeled my work ethic and the way I treat people after her. She's a very loving person and extremely supportive in everything I do. 

My Posse mentor is sort of like my mom on campus. She has been immensely caring and an incredible help in numerous ways, from helping me apply for the Patti Grace Fellowship to choosing the right materials for engineering projects, and I know I can always count on her. 

My uncle is also a source of inspiration for me because he played football in college and then the NFL, and is now on the California State Supreme Court. It’s nice to have someone know what you’re going through, and I’ve always admired his football and career accomplishments.

What are some of your goals for the future?

My dream is to play in the NFL, and then transition to focus on astronautical engineering afterwards. I want to play football at the highest level and then use engineering as an opportunity to make an impact in others’ lives. Whether it's working on missions to Mars or solving energy problems on Earth, I’d love to leave some sort of positive impact. 

I also want to prioritize my relationship with my family. They are my support system and I wouldn’t be here without them. At the end of the day though, these are just my goals but the plan God has for me will far exceed what I have in mind and that is what I am most excited about.

—Interview by Alyssa Caroselli '24; photos by Douglas Benedict/Academic Image