Nicole Nelson-Jean, EM associate principal deputy assistant secretary for field operations, at center, met with students from Benedict College and Tennessee State University (TSU) in Oak Ridge, where the students got an up-close look at cleanup projects and learned about new opportunities through EM’s Minority Serving Institutions Partnership Program.
Nicole Nelson-Jean, EM associate principal deputy assistant secretary for field operations, at center, met with students from Benedict College and Tennessee State University (TSU) in Oak Ridge.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. – Wide eyes and eager note-taking hands lined the perimeter of a large conference table in Oak Ridge. Dari Gabriel, a senior environmental engineering student from Benedict College in South Carolina, was one of them.

“This is huge. Really huge,” she said.

Students from various colleges and universities, some nearly 300 miles away, had come to tour cleanup sites and meet Nicole Nelson-Jean, the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management’s EM’s associate principal deputy assistant secretary for field operations. Nelson-Jean was at Oak Ridge to discuss a major funding boost to EM’s Minority Serving Institutions Partnership Program (MSIPP).

“I graduated from an HBCU, so meeting some of these students who are ready to go out into the world and make a difference, hearing some of their questions, and hearing from the administrators, was a wonderful opportunity for me,” Nelson-Jean said.

Nelson-Jean added that she valued the opportunity to obtain input from the students as EM continues to expand its MSIPP.

Funding for the program increased from $6 million in fiscal year 2021 to $56 million in fiscal year 2022. The growth in funding will enable expansion of the EM MSIPP to provide more opportunities for students from Minority Serving Institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across the country.

“Where before we could reach maybe hundreds of students, we now can reach thousands of students,” Nelson-Jean said.

There are 107 HBCUs, 32 tribal colleges and universities, and several historically Hispanic institutions that the EM MSIPP will be able to impact, Nelson-Jean said. The program provides opportunities to students like Gabriel, who begins her internship with EM Oak Ridge contractor UCOR this month.

“I’m going to be doing a little bit of everything, but the main thing is to figure out how to decontaminate the soil and groundwater,” Gabriel said. “It makes me feel like a superhero because I’m working to make change and make the world better.”

Joining the meeting virtually, Tennessee State University President Glenda Glover shared her gratitude for the financial support from the EM MSIPP.

Nelson-Jean said the program will now be able to provide hands-on experience to college and university students, further preparing them for careers in EM. The EM MSIPP also will ensure the institutions have the opportunity to maintain and sustain a student body that can work on cutting edge activities on campus, she added.

EM has been charged with the responsibility of cleaning up 107 sites across the country whose area is equal to the combined area of Rhode Island and Delaware. Although there are 15 active EM sites remaining where cleanup work is currently ongoing, Nelson-Jean said there is still decades of work to complete.

“For us to be able to complete that work, we need a workforce and a talent pool that we can pull from, and we want to ensure that that workforce is reflective of America,” Nelson-Jean said.

The expanded EM MSIPP funding comes at a crucial time. The EM cleanup program has a workforce of about 33,000 federal and contractor employees. A significant portion of the workforce is eligible, or will soon be eligible, for retirement. The EM MSIPP provides an opportunity to create a strong pipeline to fill future openings.

Nelson-Jean told the students gathered at Oak Ridge that she had not come from a science background. But with determination and a strong support system, she has created a successful career that has so far spanned three decades.

Gabriel noted that it’s difficult to apply for jobs and internships as a college student when companies want candidates with career experience.

“I’m new to this,” she said. “You have to start somewhere, too.”

Gabriel is grateful that start is taking place in Oak Ridge.