Hands-On Engineering Education Spells Success for Detroit Student

Rebecca Spencer (center) with her mother and father, Chiquita and Joseph Spencer, and her sisters.
Rebecca Spencer (center) with her mother and father, Chiquita and Joseph Spencer, and her sisters.

Rebecca Spencer loves to do things with her hands.  And the Detroit native does them so well that those talented hands—with a mind to match—earned her a scholarship to Michigan Tech from Marathon Petroleum Company LP (MPC).  

But it’s more than a scholarship.  It’s a scholarship that comes with four summers of paid internships and co-ops at MPC—and an opportunity for a job with the refining company when she graduates.  

An engineering education program called DAPCEP (Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program) launched Spencer on her journey toward Michigan Tech, MPC and an engineering career.  She joined DAPCEP before she could even spell “engineer,”at the prompting of her mother, Chiquita Spencer, who heard about the program from Rebecca's godmother.  

DAPCEP is a nonprofit educational organization that partners with eight Michigan universities to bring science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) experiences to underrepresented youth in metropolitan Detroit. Michigan Tech is one of DAPCEP’s university partners. 

As a third grader, Rebecca joined DAPCEP’s Academy of Young Scientists, exploring forensic science and later, alternative energy.  Then she moved on into PURSE (Promoting Underrepresented [Girls' Involvement] in Research, Science and Energy), a DAPCEP program for high school girls.

“I’m not a big fan of science,” Spencer says frankly, “but I like math, and I really like doing things hands-on.  I’m definitely a hands-on kind of person. “ 

So she and other PURSE members worked on things with their hands, things like wind turbines and models of solar energy. They even built a model house that uses solar energy.  She won science fair competitions and earned the chance to come to Michigan Tech for two weeks one summer and three weeks the next. 

Spencer not only enjoyed her time in DAPCEP, she says it helped her in school.  “School became like a refresher course,” she explains, “because I’d already learned all that in DAPCEP.”    

During her senior year of high school, Rebecca took a tour of MPC’s Michigan Refining Division plant in Detroit, hosted by DAPCEP and MPC.  She learned about their new scholarship for a deserving high school student living in Detroit . She liked what she’d seen at the refinery, so she applied.    

After writing essays and going through a comprehensive interview process, Rebecca won the scholarship.  She spent last summer working an internship at the refinery, and MPC was impressed with her performance. 

“We are proud to have been a Detroit business for several decades, and we are always looking for ways to increase the number of people we hire from the local community at the Detroit refinery,” explains Tracy Case, manager of the Detroit refinery.   

Rebecca calls her mother the driving force behind her early explorations in engineering and her drive to win the MPC scholarship. “She was on top of me all the way,” the first-year engineering student says. 

Her mother was also her inspiration, as was her grandmother. While Rebecca was in high school, her mother developed breast cancer within two weeks of the girl’s grandmother being diagnosed with colon cancer.  “Imagine the impact this had on me,” says Rebecca, “the two most powerful women in my life in a battle to survive this deadly disease.”   

Rebecca found balancing schoolwork, after-school activities and supporting her mother and grandmother in their fight against cancer almost overwhelming. “Even staying awake in class was a challenge,” she recalls.  Still, she managed to maintain a 4.0 grade point average, remain on the honor roll and earn a scholar-athlete award for her achievements in varsity basketball, varsity track and as a varsity cheerleader. 

“Rebecca is a responsible, self-motivated, organized, independent, dependable and mature student,” says John Rodriguez, a counselor at Redford Union High School, where she graduated with honors last spring. 

Rebecca’s mother is now a breast cancer survivor—and oh, so proud of her daughter, who started at Michigan Tech this fall.  “She strives so hard, and she always stays focused,” Mrs. Spencer says.

Rebecca’s grandmother didn’t survive her cancer, but she’s still guiding the engineering student’s path.  “Whenever I find myself in a tough situation, I think about the words my grandmother would always say to me: ‘Stay in school, be somebody in life and make me proud,’ “ Rebecca recalls. 

With MPC’s and DAPCEP’s help, that’s just what she is doing. 

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, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 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.