2/21/03

David Granger, 334/844-9999

AU'S FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN GRAD TO SPEAK FEB. 26

AUBURN -- Samuel L. Pettijohn, Auburn University's first African-American graduate and a senior project manager for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, will speak on Wednesday (Feb. 26) as part of AU's continuing celebration of Black History Month.

Pettijohn will speak on "Vision, Education and Determination: The Hallmarks of Maneuvering Through an Uncertain Future," at 7 p.m., in the ballroom of the James E. Foy Student Union.

Pettijohn became Auburn's first black graduate when he received a bachelor's degree in physics in 1967. In 2001, AU recognized his role in helping to integrate the university by awarding him an honorary Doctor of Science degree at its summer commencement ceremony.

However historical, Pettijohn's route to an AU degree was circuitous.

After high school, he enrolled at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), one of the most famous and prestigious historically black colleges in the country. He enrolled in engineering, but when Tuskegee decided to begin a physics curriculum, he quickly changed his major.

"Physics was something that appealed to me on some level," he said in a 2001 interview. "So I quickly changed. Unfortunately, the program didn't last long."

For reasons that remain unclear to Pettijohn, Tuskegee's fledgling physics program began to founder. With the program near death, a Tuskegee professor contacted Auburn physics professor Raymond Askew and made arrangements for the young man to continue his education in his chosen field -- at Auburn.

"Originally, what I was told was that I would continue to be officially enrolled at Tuskegee and just attend the classes at Auburn," Pettijohn said. "And that's the way it was the first term. But, after that first term, I was told I would have to enroll at Auburn."

So, in the middle of his junior year, Pettijohn joined a small contingent of African-Americans as a student at Auburn. His experience, he said, must be viewed in the context of the era.

"In the context of the times, my experience at Auburn was without incident," Pettijohn said. "Nothing other than the occasional remark and that we were segregated from the rest of the student population. After class, we didn't socialize or talk. But, again, in the context of the day, that was just understood.

"There were seven (African-Americans). We all stayed together at Magnolia Hall and, because of that, we became great friends. I still cherish those friends and, largely because of them and because of professors like Dr. Askew and Dr. Howard Carr (the head of the physics department at the time), my memories of Auburn are pleasant ones."

After Auburn, Pettijohn served in the Army for four years, receiving a Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal for his service in combat support in Vietnam with the Army Corps of Engineers. After earning a master's degree in computer engineering from Loyola College in Baltimore, he worked with several private companies and NASA before taking a position with the NRC.

Pettijohn has worked for the NRC since 1977 was instrumental in developing an NRC database of radiation incidents and accidents and is now working toward the development of a similar database on an international scale. He is also the recipient of an NRC Meritorious Service Award for Equal Employment Opportunity Excellence for working to improve opportunities for black employees.

Pettijohn, who lives in Owings Mills, Md., will be making his third visit to Auburn since leaving with his degree in 1967.

Pettijohn's visit is sponsored by AU's Center for Diversity and Race Relations.

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feb03:AU-pettijohn

CONTACT: Keenan Grenell, 334/844-4184.