Chemical engineer Andrea Benton works in the aerospace and defense engineering industry and her determination to fly beyond obstacles got her to where she is today — an unbroken, problem solving “miracle.”
South Arkansas Community College assistant professor Vernita Morgan met Benton through GLAMS, Girls Learning About Math and Science, she said. After SouthArk Board co-chair Veronica Creer referred Benton to her for a speaking engagement, the engineer led an experiment for GLAMS – a program for eighth grade girls. Impressed by her love for science and her story, she invited her to speak at the institution.
“When Phillip (Shackleford) asked me for someone to recommend to speak, I know part of her story and with our audience, I think it would resonate because we have a lot of nontraditional students who have other responsibilities other than school,” Morgan said. “I think she’s a voice of one of them (and) someone who has overcome and finished what they’re doing now.”
Poised, shy and reserved, the tall woman spoke to a room of women during South Arkansas Community College’s Women’s History Month celebration. “I am honored to stand before you and recognize the trailblazing women in (the) aerospace industry. Women, young ladies, God uniquely designed us as a miracle at birth,” she said. “Each one of us is different from the next. It is our differences that make us equal at work and on our jobs.”
Benton grew up in Norphlet and was the salutatorian of the Norphlet High School class of 1998. In 10th grade chemistry, her teacher made the subject exciting and started class with science-related jokes only she thought were funny, she said.
“I always knew it was something that I wanted to do. He made it easy and I always liked making stuff and coming up with new concepts,” she said. “It’s something about proving things that captivates me. I have always been fascinated by science and math because things had to be proven by facts and numbers.”
Growing up, Benton said her parents, James and Brenda, always encouraged her and her eight siblings to “do the best you possibly can.” Her mother, Brenda, dropped out of high school in the eighth grade and became a stay-at-home wife and mother.
The engineer’s mother quoted Psalm 118:24 everyday, which fueled the engineer through her journey in STEM. Watching her “do mathematics” influenced her the most, she said.
“I remember watching her sit at the kitchen table with her notebook and pen and for hours she would do addition and subtraction,” Benton said. “This just blew my mind how smart my mother is. Then I grew up and realized she was calculating and figuring bills. The thing is I still saw her as one of the smartest women in the world.
Benton said that she always knew what she wanted to do and where she wanted to go to school. She ultimately chose to attend Louisiana Tech University after a trip to the campus in the ninth grade.
“We had an assignment to do a research paper. (My English teacher) took the time to ask the class, it was open to anyone, to go on a trip to an university … I fell in love with the campus and we only went to library. It was this huge building,” she said. “I chose chemical engineering … because it was one of the most versatile in the engineering degrees out there. I did not want limit myself to one particular field of study.”
A short time before this life altering trip, she gave birth to her son Christopher at 15 years old. Benton balanced academics, cheerleading, basketball and parenting during her time at Norphlet High School. She said that the trip motivated her “to keep going” and after graduating she studied chemical engineering at Louisiana Tech.
“I commuted for five-plus years from Ruston to El Dorado. I worked a full-time job at Georgia Pacific. I worked from six that night until six that morning and when I got home, I showered and it was time for me to go to class,” she said. “At one point, I did not want to finish. I mean it had got hard and I actually sat out a year. I took a break and … “I was like ‘Do I want to sit here and push this button?’ I went on back and finished.”
Morgan also attended Louisiana Tech and studied chemical engineering, which connected the two women beyond their love for STEM, she said.
“Me finishing chemical engineering and going through the same program she went through, I think I was the second African-American female to finish it and there was no one there support wise. I know the rigor of that program,” Morgan said. “She had help, but she still had to do mommy things. That was very impressive that she was able to prioritize her time and still maintain her grades in ordered to finish the program.”
Benton credits her faith and a strong support system for success. In 2005, the engineer received her Bachelor’s of Science degree from Louisiana Tech.
“I still don’t know how I did it because it was just difficult. It really was. You have to have a discipline about yourself,” she said. “All I can said is (it was) the grace of God. That’s how I balanced it. I would drive down the highway, pray and say ‘God, please keep me safe from falling asleep,’ because I had no sleep … When I would come home, I would see my child and the whole time I was going through that experience I was thinking about him and how he it was affecting him without my presence.”
She felt guilty for not being there, but she said that her absence made him “want to do better for himself,” she said. In July of 2006, she started working as at Aerojet Rocketdyne, a leading manufacturer of rocket and missile propulsion, in Camden. Today, she’s the lead process engineer for the Patriot Advance Capability-3 Solid Rocket Motor and Army TACMS Solid Rocket Motor.
“PAC-3 is an anti-ballistic missile system and is part of a three layer missile defense network. ATACMS is a long-range tactical surface-to-surface missile. It has 20 years of production and is combat proven by the U.S. Army,” Benton said. “As the manufacturing engineer, I own the processes. I write and update work instructions for production … I provide on-the-floor training and … perform hazard analysis and process proofing on equipment and tooling.”
She said that she enjoyed the award-winning film “Hidden Figures,” which depicts the story of three African-American women integral to many NASA missions. Her address to the SouthArk community was modeled after the film.
“It’s packed with lessons (about) racial segregation, gender discrimination, messages about morality and my personal favorite — rocket science,” she said. “We can do it all thanks to the trailblazers of the past like … three brilliant women at NASA Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. This helped the United States excel in the Space Race.”
Only 6.6 percent of women working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are African-American, according to the National Science Board. Like Johnson, Vaughn and Jackson, Benton acknowledged that women’s contributions are often hidden and unnoticed in the workplace.
“My job is male dominate and oftentimes I feel my work is undervalued and if we be honest with ourselves, we all feel underpaid.
Christopher now studies civil engineering and construction management at University of Arkansas-Little Rock.
“When he first started school, one thing that I did was show him my transcript because I didn’t want him to think that it was easy and I just made A’s, B’s and C’s. I said, ‘Son, look. I made some F’s. I had to repeat some classes. So when you think that you can’t do it or whatever and if you don’t succeed, just try again.”
Benton also has a younger son, Ky’Land, a seven-year-old first grader in the Smackover-Norphlet School District. She said that she tries to motivate her children and other younger people, especially girls by sharing her experiences.
“I constantly tell girls how they can have both beauty and brains, cheer or play basketball and still make all A’s. I express how their pay could double just by having the title ‘engineering’ behind their degree,” she said.
To young, aspiring engineers and college students, she said, “You must take ownership and responsibility for your actions, even your mistakes. You must have self-perseverance and stay focused. It will be hard, but with Christ Jesus all things are possible. You can not do it by yourself. You need a support system, family and friends, to help you.”
Brittany Williams may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and like her on Facebook @BWilliamsEDNT for updates on Union County school news.