NGA’s ninth deputy director pulls from her own experience as an underrepresented, math-and-science-loving kid to make sure other Black children receive the same opportunities she did.
Looking ahead to the future GEOINT workforce, Tonya Wilkerson inevitably ends up reflecting on her own educational journey, which began with an early and fervent love of math and science. By the time she entered high school, Wilkerson had already set her sights on a career in engineering. What she never imagined was landing in the position she holds today, as ninth deputy director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). “Despite living in the Washington D.C., metro area, I had not considered a career in the intelligence community,” said Wilkerson.
Had it not been for an intuitive high school principal, Wilkerson would not have been introduced to an intelligence officer who was recruiting minority students for The Stokes Educational Scholarship Program. She wouldn’t have attended Virginia Tech, where she spent summers working at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). She wouldn’t have joined the National Society of Black Engineers, where she was assigned to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). And she wouldn’t have forged three decades as a successful member of the GEOINT community. “My path to stem was definitely influenced by leaders just like you and me, who thought it important enough to invest time in a Black female student living in a rural area just outside Washington, D.C., who loved math and science and aspired to be an engineer,” Wilkerson said.
Just five months into the job at NGA, Wilkerson has already made substantial strides toward paying it forward. Step one: Identifying the systematic flaws that lead to minority children being overlooked and underexposed to STEM-related career paths. “Research indicates that the STEM pipeline begins as early as Kindergarten, when differences in average test scores of different communities can already be seen,” said Wilkerson. “Five-year-old Black children are already starting off their path behind the curve—how is that possible?”
Wilkerson cites the research of DeLean Tolbert Smith, a professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, who studies educational assets in Black communities. “She found that many young Black children have lack of exposure to STEM from a young age.”
Step two: Mitigating those educational deficits and steering underrepresented youth toward careers in intelligence and STEM. In St. Louis, NGA is erecting its new state-of-the-art western campus in a predominantly Black area of the city. “Kids today are seeing the building go up and I hope wanting to one day be a part of it,” said Wilkerson.
In an effort to get St. Louis kids into those seats, NGA is establishing Education Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with local Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) such as Harris-Stowe State University. “Our EPA with them is the first we’ve established with a specific focus in developing GEOINT talent,” said Wilkerson. “We’ve been working w them to create a diversified portfolio of certificate programs based on GEOINT to help prepare graduates for a career with NGA and its commercial partners.”
Beyond St. Louis, NGA is using Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) to collaborate with commercial companies, non-federal entities, and universities (including University of Colorado-Boulder) on joint research and development projects. “It’s a superb example of a collaboration that also works to build a region-specific pipeline for future GEOINT analysts, imagery analysts, data scientists, geodesy scientists, and all kinds of other STEM experts,” said Wilkerson.
With her own background as muse, Wilkerson has sketched the blueprint for tomorrow’s tradecraft. “The next generation of STEM leadership looks like America. [They are] Black, brown, white, Asian and American Indian; female; hearing and deaf, abled and differently-abled and neurodiverse; straight and gay; from inner cities and rural America,” said Wilkerson. “And I can’t wait to see what they do next.”