To Brianna Lawton, life is about creating your own path.
So in 2013, when the budding engineering student needed to switch schools, her path turned to Howard Community College (HCC).
“I thought, where can I go and still get a great education?” she recalled. “My mom said, ‘I think Howard Community College is affordable and they have great programs. And they’re ranked top in the country for community colleges.’”
Fast forward to today, when the HCC and Morgan State University graduate is a doctoral student studying transportation engineering at Iowa State University – and a recent recipient of the prestigious Fulbright U.S. Student Award to study rural roads in Ghana.
Lawton knew early on that she wanted to pursue engineering. She participated in several STEM camps as a child and even became a “junior” member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). At HCC, she started the school’s first NSBE chapter – a move that drew the attention of President Kathleen Hetherington.
“(Hetherington) is such a supporter of the students and what we were doing,” Lawton said. “She was really engaged and involved and went to so many different events on campus where we were able to communicate and talk with her one-on-one. At some colleges and universities, it’s very distinct, where ‘This is the president,’ and ‘You’re the student.’ Not at HCC. President Hetherington was very down-to-earth, welcoming and always adamant about how can she help students get to where they want to be.”
As she continued her studies at Morgan State University, Lawton said she realized she could combine her passion for engineering with her drive to help people. She always knew she wanted to earn her PhD and began seeking opportunities to gain academic and professional experience. That included working in the university’s transportation-geotechnical research laboratory, which lead to her unequivocal enthusiasm for transportation engineering.
“Whatever I did, I wanted to be able to touch a lot of people,” Lawton said. “I know sometimes people say that’s every job. But I wanted to do it on a large scale where I know people’s lives are being changed and saved. I saw that I could do that with transportation through design and safety.”
After hearing from peers and colleagues how crash fatalities impacted their lives, Lawton decided to dig deeper into her research at Iowa State University.
“In the U.S., we suffer from a high rate of crash fatalities on rural roads,” she said. “Rural roads carry less than half of America’s traffic, yet they account for over half the nation’s vehicular deaths. Comparably, Ghana does too. Outside of malaria, road traffic accidents have been classified as the second major cause of death. But there’s little data available about why. I want to contribute and work with the local universities, transportation centers, ministry of transport and other entities to help build a more robust system by increasing their database to predict and plan for the future in order to decrease crash fatalities, subsequently saving lives.”
The Fulbright scholarship, which the U.S. Department of State awarded to Lawton this past spring, will help fund her research. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, her travel to Ghana has been postponed.
Lawton said she’s still adamant about continuing her research. And while she’s disappointed in the delay, she said it’s just another curve in her path – a path that’s possible thanks to HCC.
“I know HCC’s tagline is ‘You can get there from here,’” she said. “It’s true. I always give kudos to HCC. I literally was able to get so many places because of HCC’s support.”
Wherever you want to go, you can get there from here.