Systems Architect Engineer Keyshawn is on a mission to change how kids growing up in poverty imagine their future.
Driven to give back and remove barriers, Keyshawn has a sense of purpose that is clearer than that of many twice his age. He has ambitious plans to empower young people, starting in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, and working at Northrop Grumman has further helped him put his plans into action.
Laying the Groundwork
Growing up in Newark — a city that has historically been one of the poorest in the U.S., with 26% of residents living below the poverty line — Keyshawn learned quickly that his path to opportunity was an education. The oldest of five in a single-parent household, he watched his mom work multiple jobs to support their family. At an early age, she taught him to focus on the bigger picture, and not to let their economic circumstances dictate his future.
In the sixth grade, Keyshawn had the chance to participate in a robotics program at Stevens Institute of Technology, opening his eyes to the world of engineering and, ultimately, options for his future beyond his neighborhood. While his initial dream was to join the NFL, he nurtured his fascination with building and seeing new technology come to life throughout high school. For many who grow up in poverty, Keyshawn explained, becoming a professional athlete is seen as the only way out. When that doesn’t materialize, it can feel like the only door to a better life is closed for good; decisions are made in the moment to survive, which can change the trajectory of your life. But for Keyshawn, it was having a Plan B — an interest in robotics — that helped ensure his long-term success.
“Sometimes we don’t realize Plan B is the real blessing,” said Keyshawn.
That plan led Keyshawn to the engineering program at Virginia State University (VSU). From day one at VSU, he sought ways to both grow professionally and give back. After returning to his high school for Alumni Day in 2019 Keyshawn got the idea to create a scholarship program. He was still a senior in college.
“I saw the [students’] excitement for wanting to create something more for their futures, but I knew the opportunities wouldn’t just present themselves,” said Keyshawn of that visit. “These kids dream of going to college, but for most of them it doesn’t become a reality. Instead, they put it on the backburner, get a job and never look back.”
In fall 2019, Keyshawn joined Northrop Grumman as an E-2D Advanced Hawkeye system test engineer in Melbourne, Florida. Around the same time, he launched his ‘Just Want to Inspire’ scholarship, focused on mitigating the financial barriers impacting young people on their road to higher education. The scholarship is completely funded by donations gathered through Keyshawn’s networking and grassroots marketing. The application process, while rigorous, only requires that applicants have a 2.7 GPA — lower than most private scholarship requirements. He set that on purpose, recognizing that while students in low-income areas possess the intelligence and potential to ace their schoolwork, they likely lack the support system or means.
“Sometimes we don’t realize Plan B is the real blessing,”
Keyshawn, E-2D Advanced Hawkeye system test engineer
“They’re really smart, but they’re dealing with a lot,” said Keyshawn. “They can’t always put their full mind into their education.”
This is something Keyshawn understands firsthand. He credits his mom for pushing him to stay focused on his goals and keep an open mind, which helped him overcome similar struggles.
“She stayed on me to not let her issues be mine,” said Keyshawn.
Donations for the scholarship are collected through a crowdfunding webpage. That first year, Keyshawn raised $1,500 — enough to offer three Newark-based students $500 each for college tuition. Since the scholarship launched, he has been able to impact the lives of eight teenagers and raised more than $8,500.
Connecting the Dots
Marking his three-year anniversary with Northrop Grumman in September, Keyshawn is active around Melbourne. He mentors young people and volunteers through the company, teaching robotics to local middle school students. He shared that his work at Northrop Grumman has helped him hone skills — like public speaking and leadership — that can be transferred over to the work he does with his scholarship program.
He has begun work developing other opportunities to enrich and support youth in Newark and is already thinking about how to continue expanding his scholarship program, which recently completed the paperwork to become an official 501(c)(3). He hopes to one day reach students in other underserved communities around the nation.
Keyshawn credits Northrop Grumman’s focus on a strong work/life balance for supporting his growth outside of work. “The 9/80 schedule has allowed me to be flexible, so I can attend different events and be more involved in my community,” he said. “Not to mention get my Master’s.”
With the help of the company’s EdAssist program, Keyshawn is currently pursuing his Master’s in systems engineering at Stevens — the same place that helped pique his interest in engineering when he was a kid — and will be graduating in 2024.
“I just want to show kids that someone came from the inner city and was successful, and didn’t forget where he came from,” said Keyshawn.
And he’s just getting started.
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