Alumni of minority engineering group set to ‘Glow’

A team of MERIT students makes final checks on its glider before launching during a previous competition. MERIT, founded in Seaford in 1974, has positively impacted the lives of more than 450 minority students and is now honoring distinguished alumni with its Glow program. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

For more than four decades, an educational program structured on motivation and the principles of “Think Big” and “Touch Greatness” has had a major impact on many minority students in Downstate Delaware.

Founded in 1974 by John Hollis in collaboration with Seaford DuPont nylon plant engineers, Minority Engineering Regional Incentive Training has provided academic enrichment and college preparatory opportunities for 450-plus middle school and high school students from across Sussex County.

The list of beneficiaries includes doctors, lawyers, college professors and others.

Now, it’s time for MERIT’s successful alumni to shine.

“We’re creating a new subdivision of MERIT. We’re calling it MERIT Glow, which is the feeling students get after completing MERIT,” said Mr. Hollis. “We’re focusing on the alumni, with MERIT, which has been going on for 46 years. That’s for middle school and high school minority students from Sussex. This is a new organization as a subset of MERIT.”

As a kickoff, MERIT is highlighting five Glow alumni: Dr. Erica Waples, Robert Ruffin, Leonard Lucas, Kathryn R. Riley and Chelina Tingle.

Dr. Erica Waples
Dr. Waples is practicing internal medicine at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. Back at Cape Henlopen High School, she was the only Black student in her honors classes.

“MERIT gave me many valuable opportunities,” said Dr. Waples. “The science enrichment activities helped me to excel academically. Various adult mentors, like John Oliver, were crucial guides. The repeated activities that honed our public speaking skills brought me out of my shell. I also was able to meet role models like Dr. Benjamin Carson, who inspired my love for medicine.”

Robert Ruffin
An honors student at Sussex Central High School, Mr. Ruffin is now a senior leader with Bain & Co. consulting group in Boston. He is a graduate of Swarthmore College and the prestigious Harvard Business School.

He says his MERIT experience taught him this: “Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, and you will likely be surprised at what you can do when you put your mind to it. Be open to new things and ideas, listen to others and see what you might be able to open.”

Leonard Lucas
From MERIT, which he joined in summer 1986, Mr. Lucas has gone on to a successful career in law. He is the principal attorney at The Law Firm of Leonard Earl Lucas, based in Nashville, Tennessee, specializing in criminal defense, federal contracting and construction law, regulated utilities and civil litigation.

“MERIT offered me many opportunities to have new experiences,” Mr. Ruffin said. “The people and mentors in my life have been plentiful.”

Kathryn R. Riley
Valedictorian for Indian River High School’s class of 2006, Ms. Riley is now an assistant professor in chemistry and biochemistry at Swarthmore College, one of the premier liberal arts institutions in America.

“Through MERIT, I was mentored by professionals who looked like me and came from my community, which gave me the fortitude to persist in academic spaces where I was the only person of color,” said Ms. Riley. “MERIT provided strong cohort building among my peers and their families from all over Sussex County that gave us a space to be celebrated, which was key for me to reach a place of personal acceptance early on in my life.”

Chelina Tingle
For Ms. Tingle, MERIT was instrumental in pursuing her passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). She is now a STEM teacher in the Indian River School District and mentors with MERIT.

“Before STEM was a buzzword in education, MERIT was giving its students skills in those very industries,” said Ms. Tingle.

Motivated by Mr. Hollis’ announcement one Saturday morning of a MERIT senior earning a full scholarship to the University of Delaware, Ms. Tingle became a multi-award winner of the Carson Scholars Fund.

“As a middle schooler, a lightbulb went off in my head, and fire began to burn in my heart. I was amazed (that) someone will give me money for earning good grades!” said Ms. Tingle. “In that moment, I made it my mission to not have my parents pay anything for my college education either. Soon after, through MERIT, I heard about an opportunity to earn my first scholarship of $1,000 through the Carson Scholars Fund. I applied and won — a total of five times!”

Ms. Tingle went on to win other scholarships.

Looking ahead
“As you can see from the ones we shared, some pretty outstanding Sussex County individuals have gone on to great success. And they attribute a lot of that to the MERIT experience,” said Mr. Hollis.

And the ongoing pandemic has not hurt MERIT’s cause, as it has gone virtual in lieu of its traditional Saturday sessions at the Western Sussex Boys & Girls Club.

Currently, MERIT students are working in teams in a project competition that culminates in early December.

“Our big meeting is Dec. 5, and we’re going to try to do that live the best we can,” said Mr. Hollis. “They are having a competition to equip tiny homes — 400 square feet or less — with energy efficiency, so they are working in their teams, but they are doing it all virtual.”