It was the late 1960s and a young black woman in Houston’s Third Ward was learning about engineering for the first time. Cynthia Oliver Coleman, P.E. (’71) was a high school junior with roots in the Cuney Homes development of Houston. Her interest in chemical engineering was piqued by a high school science teacher who chartered a Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS) chapter. While neither of her parents attended college, they were serious about her grades and wished that their daughter would one day have a lucrative career.
Coleman began researching which colleges offered chemical engineering degrees. She originally thought she would attend Texas Southern University since it was in her neighborhood and predominantly black, but it did not offer chemical engineering as a major. Prairie View A&M was a well-known black college that offered chemical engineering, but Coleman did not have money or a car. She soon discovered that the recently integrated University of Houston offered a chemical engineering degree program.
“My UH engineering degree changed the entire trajectory of my life from what it would have been. It enabled me to realize my parents’ dream for me.”
1978 at Katy Gas Plant.
1970 with UH chapter of Tau Beta Pi. First woman to hold an office (secretary). Tau Beta Pi is the oldest engineering honor society and the second oldest collegiate honor society in America.
In 1967, when she enrolled as a freshman at the Cullen College of Engineering, Coleman was both the only female student and the only black woman in the chemical and biomolecular engineering department. It took a little while for Coleman and her classmates to warm up to each other. “I felt isolated, because this was a new experience for me. It took a while for the boys to get used to a girl in the class, but in time, I was accepted and even elected an officer in one of the student organizations,” she said.
Coleman began her career as the first woman engineer in the large East Texas Division of Exxon (then Humble Oil). During her 33-year ExxonMobil career, Coleman was featured in various publications and held positions in gas engineering, reservoir engineering, engineering applications, engineering recruiting and engineering information systems — all before retiring in 2004.
Coleman may have been the first in her family to graduate college, but it started a chain reaction. “My education from UH enabled me to help my younger sister, Patrice O. Yarbough (’80, Ph.D. ’85), pursue her dreams at UH. It enabled my husband, Leonard J. Coleman (’70), and myself to help our daughter, Kelly Coleman, M.D. (’98), attend UH as well. My UH degree enabled me to be in a position to give back in a big way to help others,” she says.
Now, Coleman serves as a mentor and role model for women and minorities in engineering at UH. “As a passionate engineering volunteer leader, I will continue to support UH engineering students by giving what I wished was available to me when I was an engineering student.”
Coleman serves on the UH Alumni Association Foundation Board and the UH Petroleum Engineering Advisory Board. As the second woman engineer and first black woman engineer to graduate from UH, she was awarded the Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award, and her portrait was hung in the UH Engineering Alumni Hall of Distinction in the Cullen College. She has also been recognized with an Outstanding Volunteer Award and the Roger Eichhorn Leadership Service Award.
This fall, Coleman will be one of the honorees for the historic 50th Anniversary of UH’s Epsilon Lambda chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. In 1969, Epsilon Lambda became the first black Greek letter organization to be instituted at UH. This season also sees her honored with the Distinguished Engineer Legacy Award from Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Bridges Houston, an organization that supports underserved students in order to help them to graduate — which is a mission that aligns perfectly with Coleman’s own.
1971 at the ExxonMobil Building at 800 Bell Street in Houston, before ExxonMobil moved to Spring, Texas. First and only woman engineer in large East Texas Division of Exxon (then Humble Oil).
1968 at the Ladies Auxiliary of Texas Society of Professional Engineers Scholarship reception, presented during Engineers Week at Shamrock Hilton Hotel in Houston.
Coleman is exceedingly appreciative of all her awards, yet she remains humble. In order to be the first black woman to graduate from UH in that particular STEM field, Coleman had to exude confidence and had to navigate the chemistry of personal relationships — as a high school student learning what engineering even meant, to a student at the newly integrated UH during the Civil Rights Era in Texas. She remembers being nervous at times — as anyone would be who was blazing a new path.
Despite the difficulty she faced, Coleman forged a way for other young black women and minorities to pursue STEM careers. Now, the Cullen College graduates many minority students and that is, in part, due to Coleman’s determination.