Monique Wells ’99 ’02 knew from a young age that she wanted to work in STEM—and like so many Michigan Tech alumni, her career took a path she didn’t expect.
The chemical engineering major launched her professional life in industry, but switched gears to pursue a love of teaching. After spending several years teaching engineering technology to high school students, Wells returned to the corporate environment with a passion for STEM education and equity. Recently named DTE Energy’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in February 2021, Wells reflects on her time at Tech and her vision for what DE&I efforts should mean at the workplace and in the classroom.
Q: You have two chemical engineering degrees from Michigan Tech. What led you to apply?
MW: There was a Michigan Tech recruiter named Rochelle Danquah who was a phenomenal presence in southeastern Detroit, especially at Martin Luther King, Jr. Senior High School (King), which is where I went to school. I was a member of the Mathematics, Science, and Technology (MSAT) cohort at King, and Rochelle made sure I knew all about Michigan Tech’s Summer Youth Programs in MSAT subjects. I enrolled in the Women in Engineering (WIE) program, went up to Houghton, and fell in love.
"I always say to love Tech is to be at Tech. To love it is to see it."
I had already decided to go to the University of Michigan after graduation, but Rochelle got in touch with me and encouraged me to reconsider. She was very instrumental in helping me find a program that worked for me, and other folks at Tech made sure I had funding and scholarships that covered all of my tuition. I have to say that having great resources from Michigan Tech in the area where I lived was instrumental in finding my way to Tech. That’s what made the difference.
Q: What was your experience like as an undergraduate?
MW: I have some amazing memories being on campus my freshman year. Quite a few students from my class at King also enrolled at Tech, so we had a small community going from day one. The environment was beautiful, and the fact that the campus was smaller made me feel like everything was a bit more accessible.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges. I remember getting there and realizing how smart everybody was. From the very beginning, it was a competitive academic environment. The academics were something that set Tech apart from any environment I had been in. The expectations were high and there was some angst in wondering whether you were going to cut it. I still remember the music that would come on whenever there was another round of chemistry and calculus tests—the students would play “Another One Bites the Dust!”
All of the professors were warm and welcoming and I made so many friends by being involved on campus. My second year, I got involved with NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers), gospel choir, and the dance team. My experiences both academically and with the community were very rewarding.
Q: You recently became director of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) for DTE Energy. Tell us about your career and what led you to step into that role.
MW: My career has taken an interesting route, one I didn’t necessarily foresee. I graduated from Michigan Tech with both an associate’s degree in chemical engineering technology and a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. My first jobs were with Eli Lilly and Dow Chemical, and I loved it—I loved working in industry. But I also always wanted to teach. Teaching is a natural part of who I am and I always find ways to do it. For instance, at Tech, I taught a small girls group at my church. Before I graduated, I was thinking about a career in teaching, but going into industry was so attractive that I couldn't pass it up.
Eventually, I went to graduate school at the University of Toledo and completed a master’s degree in career and technical education. I then taught STEM subjects to high schoolers at the Toledo Technology Academy, and it was in this capacity that I fully discovered why I was so passionate about education, especially STEM and STEM equity. While I always knew and would talk about how important STEM education is, particularly for students of color, it wasn’t until I was teaching in that high school that I understood how valuable STEM education is for creating generationally transforming opportunities. I also saw that the United States was sliding in comparison to other countries in student literacy in STEM subjects, and I became very passionate about that.
I later returned to industry with a full-time role in environment management systems, but my time in education and my desire to promote STEM trades, learning, and access drew me to the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Eventually, it became my full-time job.
Q: What is your vision for DE&I efforts in a corporate environment? How do DE&I efforts fit in the workplace?
MW: When I talk about a vision for DE&I in a corporate space, it’s about how DE&I efforts translate to the core functions and mission of the company. At DTE, our core work is to help our customers get the energy they need. Our mission is to keep the lights on. We do that in many different ways, and we need to do it in ways that are sustainable. DE&I considerations are integral to what we do—considerations such as: How do we configure our grid to ensure sustainable energy and pricing? How do we restore power when it’s not on? How do we use our influence in the community to make things better? How are we helping our employees accomplish their tasks and goals? For example, if an electric line worker shows up at a customer’s house to get the power back on, that line worker’s job is often a lot easier if they understand the community they’re working in and can communicate effectively. So for me, my vision for DE&I in the corporate space is to make it a core value in order to help the company carry out its mission and core functions.
Q: What are your thoughts on DE&I efforts at the higher ed level? What can universities and colleges do to make sure their campuses include diverse perspectives and backgrounds and foster a sense of belonging?
A: At its core, it’s very simple, and it’s not that different from how DE&I fits into corporate culture: How do higher education institutions link DE&I to the work they do with the students whose lives they are impacting? If I’m teaching a course in calculus, I know that I’m teaching to all different types of students and learning styles. That’s a DE&I consideration. I can tell you from my experiences with the MTU faculty and administration that Michigan Tech is committed to creating practical-minded problem solvers. Because of my Tech education, I have the ability to take complex concepts and apply them in a real-world setting to solve problems. And in this day and age, practical, effective, real-world problem solving requires awareness and consideration of issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
DE&I is the breath of higher education. It’s woven into every interaction a university has with its students. And when a university factors diversity, equity, and inclusion into the environment it creates for new students, belonging is a byproduct.
Q: Your husband Leeroy is also a Michigan Tech grad. He serves as senior vice president of operations for Consumers Energy and together you’re raising four children. What tips or advice do you have for thriving as working parents?
MW: It all comes down to core values. Allow your values to be your guide no matter what job you have or where your career takes you. If you stay focused on your values, you will always have a compass to steer by. For us, when we’ve been faced with decisions about what to do next and what jobs to take, all our decisions are built around our core faith. For us, thriving as working parents comes from our agreement that our faith will always guide and ground us.
Q: Anything else would you like to share with the Michigan Tech community?
MW: MTU gave me the ability to take complicated things and apply them to create tangible solutions. I didn’t fully realize this until years later, but I am a problem solver because of my education at Michigan Tech, and I will always be grateful for that. I will forever be grateful to the MTU community for wrapping their arms around me and helping me make the most of my time on campus. It was a rigorous education with high standards, in an environment where faculty and staff really wanted you to succeed. No matter where life takes me, I always want to be in a position to help the University do what they do best—create some of the world’s best problem solvers at a time when the world really needs them.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.