Head of the class
Ben Gordon sits in his sparse office, with its bright fluorescents, the textbooks on the shelf, the dry-erase board smudged with equations and graphs.
He is talking thermodynamics right now and how power plants are really “just huge engines,” but just a few minutes ago, he was talking about the guys he once called friends who are either dead or in jail. And just like that, it’s clear how close this moment came to never happening.
He is 27 and a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering. Last year he finished his undergraduate degree at Pitt, graduating tops in his class, with a 3.82 GPA. He was the student speaker at the engineering school’s December commencement and received the prestigious Goldwater scholarship, awarded to the top 300 science students in the country.
Gordon has close-cropped hair and beard and deep smile lines around his eyes that veer downward when he smiles, like the wings of a gull. When he laughs, he squints so much that his eyes are no longer visible. He has a gap-toothed smile and a round face. Dressed in baggy camo sweats and unlaced Timberlands, he hovers over the dry-erase board jotting out graphs and diagrams, a silver chain and pendant with “Allah” in Arabic calligraphy swinging across his chest.
But the diagrams fail to explain the riddle of Ben Gordon: How did this “guy from the ‘hood,” from the South Side of Chicago, orphaned at 15, become one of the best engineering students in the country?
It isn’t until he starts talking about Mars, Columbus and Magellan that you start to hone in on the answer. Gordon is an explorer.
You see, Gordon was 16 years old, watching the first images from Mars broadcast by the NASA Rover Sojourner. Staring at the Martian rocks, the red dirt, the pink sky, he was utterly transfixed. He’d always loved science. Those times when his mother let him watch TV, he loved looking at the make-believe worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars.
“I always watched these fictitious versions of another world, and now I’m literally looking at right now, on a cold February afternoon, he’s another world,” he remembers. “Just seeing the landscape I thought, ‘This is Mars.’” What if there had been life on Mars?, he thought. What if he could go there?
“It’s the equivalent of Columbus or Magellan, traveling to different worlds,” he says. They had gone places no one thought possible. “Right then I thought, ‘How cool would that be, to be on the first manned mission to Mars?’ I thought, ‘What would I have to do, to do that?’ That’s how I found engineering.”
Gordon grew up in Chicago with his mother, Ava Gordon, and his younger sister, Muriel. His father, a Nigerian academic, had moved away by the time of Gordon’s earliest memories and saw his son only sporadically. During Gordon’s early childhood, the family moved frequently between Chicago, Springfield, Ill., and Iowa City, Iowa. Ava wanted Gordon and Muriel away from the big city and into better public schools.
Ava Gordon had a heart condition and asthma, and her health problems kept her from working. “Absolutely, they were poor,” remembers her son, Kwame Smith, Gordon’s half-brother. “They wore hand me downs, but sometimes they had nobody above them to hand anything down to them.”
In Chicago, the streets were the domain of “gangs, hustlers, and pimps,” Gordon recalls. “On my way to school, you had to deal with these people every day, you know, telling you to be part of the team, be a lookout for them,” Gordon says.
But there were drawbacks to living in Iowa. The big, white farm boys picked fights with him. Gordon hated it. “They would make fun of my hair, tell me it feels like carpet,” he remembers. He felt like he was being watched because of his skin color. But navigating this experience gave him some valuable tools. “I’ve always been able to see both sides of the tracks.”
She had little money to bestow upon her son, but Ava Gordon made sure to give Gordon an appreciation for learning and a sense of self-importance. She had been active in the black politics of the 1960s and was a member of the Black Panther Party for a time. She instilled in Gordon an appreciation for the contributions of black Americans. “I think she was reassuring me that there were people like me, who looked like me, who were making important contributions to the world. I never understood that until I became an adult,” Gordon says.
“She was very bright,” remembers Peter Simonson, who met Ben Gordon through the Big Brother/Big Sister program in Iowa City when Gordon was 11. Simonson was a 30-year-old grad student at the University of Iowa. Gordon was a “scrawny science geek,” Simonson remembers—a kid who read a lot of books, whose mom didn’t even keep a TV in her house.
Ava’s heart condition kept her on the couch, so Gordon took over many household duties. After he brought groceries home from the store, Ava, lying down, would walk her son through dinner: greens, cornbread, hamburgers, eggs, steak, gravy.
Then one day, the bottom dropped out of Gordon’s life. Ava died of congestive heart failure. She was 42, but the doctors said her heart was like that of an 80-yearold. Gordon was 15. “I thought I was left in the world naked, with no protector and no shield,” he says.
Gordon went to live with his halfbrother Smith, who was 21, had just graduated from Northern Iowa University and was living in Des Moines, the state’s biggest city. Smith held down two jobs, and Gordon worked at supermarkets and department stores after school. Money from those jobs, and the $117 a month in survivor’s benefits Gordon got from Social Security kept a roof over their heads.
Gordon did well enough in high school to make the honor roll and get into Iowa State University. But he gave Smith, who now works for the State of Iowa, plenty to worry about. He began hanging around young men in Des Moines who did the kinds of illegal, dead-end activities that brought on prison or worse.
Gordon, who stands over 6 feet tall and has a broad build, winces when asked about these years.
One of his friends, who’d gotten into drug dealing, was robbed and killed at home at the age of 19.
There were the two guys he knew serving life in prison for a revenge killing. Another was serving 10 years for armed robbery. Another was shot in his car. Another died in a car accident after a night of drinking. Gordon decided this wasn’t the life for him.
“You’re looking around, and you’re saying to yourself, “This ain’t how it’s supposed to be.’ This wasn’t the picture my mother helped me paint of who I wanted to be when I was growing up. People getting killed, even in Iowa, for nonsense.” This wasn’t the explorer, the kid who would be on the first mission to Mars.
It was around this time that he picked up a Koran in a public library, and his life took another tack.
He began attending services at an Islamic Center in Des Moines. He began to break away from his old friends. “I spent a lot of time reforming myself,” he says. He caught some flak from some of the guys he used to run with, but it didn’t matter.
He was done playing the game, done flirting with disaster. So he did the opposite: He became a working stiff.
Gordon got a job at a call center selling credit insurance to people who already had credit cards. A hard sell. Callers at his center were making three sales a day. Gordon started coming home with 13, 15 sales a day. He made manager, and his team became the best in the branch, then the best in the company. “Whatever I did, I just wanted to do a good job at it.”
He recites the sales goals he met, then exceeded as a manager. 180 percent in one month. 130 percent in two. He came early to work and stayed late, and missed only one day of work in two years — when his boss sent him home after he had a tooth pulled. “I told the people I worked with, they weren’t working for me. I was there to help them work.”
“He was in social settings where guys who weren’t so different from him were going to jail, getting shot, instead of going to college,” Simonson says. Gordon dropped out of Iowa State after his first year.
He memorized passages of the Koran and taught himself how to read and write Arabic. One passage in particular struck a chord: “Verily, God will never change the condition of the people until they change what is in themselves.”
“I realized my problems didn’t come from other people around me, or from society—the problems were within myself.”
He wore a kufi, the Muslim skull cap, and grew his beard out, which led to some awkward conversations, particularly after 9/11. “Black people assumed I was in the Nation of Islam, selling bean pies. They asked me, ‘Do you hate all white people?’ White people would come up to me and ask, ‘Do you believe in blowing yourself up? Do you believe in having 15 wives?’”
Gordon actually didn’t mind these encounters. On the contrary, he took them as an opportunity to dispel some myths about his adopted religion. “I actually liked people coming to me with these misconceptions.”
Around this time, he fathered a son, Assante, with a young woman he’d met through work. (The relationship didn’t work out, Gordon now goes back to Iowa to see his son.) Despite his newfound focus, Gordon wasn’t getting promoted as fast as other employees around him. He took another job as a salesman selling aluminum siding. He made straight commission—and went all over the Midwest selling vinyl siding door-to-door.
“A black guy in Iowa knocking on peoples’ doors selling aluminum siding,” Simonson says, with amazement. “If Ben could survive that, he could survive anything.”
He did well selling siding and was considering an offer to return to his old phone center job when Simonson called with an offer. Simonson by then was teaching at the University of Pittsburgh and asked Gordon to come live with him and his family and enroll at Pitt. “I knew he was a smart guy, I knew he didn’t want to be in telephone sales his whole life. I wanted him to succeed,” Simonson says.
Gordon was skeptical. “To be real, I thought getting my degree was more of a utopia type plan,” he says. Simonson would have paid for part of Gordon’s tuition himself. However, the University’s faculty benefits office decided to consider Gordon a dependent of Simonson’s, giving him free tuition.
The decision sealed the deal. Gordon moved in with Simonson’s family in their Schenley Farms home, just down the street from the School of Engineering and the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. Gordon quickly became a can’t-miss student inside the engineering school, says Minking Chyu, chair of mechanical engineering and materials sciences department. “He would usually sit front and center in class and ask very tough questions of the teacher. He was getting his money’s worth.”
Gordon worked with associate professor Jeffrey Vipperman on a project to employ acoustics in refrigeration. His teachers and fellow students encouraged him to apply for the Goldwater scholarship, a $7,500 award. He resisted applying, at first, for the same reasons he initially considered passing on Pitt.
“How many African American students do they give that award to? One half of 1 percent? I thought there was no way I’d get it.” But he relented, and got the award last spring.
“He got an opportunity at Pitt and he just crushed it,” says Simonson, who now teaches at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
“Pittsburgh’s been really good to him,” says Smith, his half-brother. “That might have been his last opportunity, if he’d passed it up.”
Gordon found time to mentor young students through Pitt’s Upward Bound program, which prepared at-risk youth for college. (Federal funding for the program at Pitt was cut last year.) “A lot of those kids— I know what they’re going through. I know the pressures they’re under.” The kids responded to him, he says, because he never gave up his identity—he didn’t act or dress “white”—yet he did well in college.
Gordon said it was important for him to connect with these young men, to show them another side of life that they could be cool and go to school. “I wanted to be that other example for them. I say to them, ‘I know hard criminals, and you ain’t hard. Is that who you really want to be?’ I see ’em on Facebook now. They’re at Slippery Rock, Virginia Tech.”
Gordon’s currently working with Chyu on a project funded by the Department of Energy to increase power plants efficiency. By raising the temperature under which turbines can operate, engineers hope to increase the amount of energy they extract from coal, natural gas and other fuels.
Going to Mars will have to wait, while Gordon works on solving problems on this planet. “If we don’t solve this energy crisis, we’re not going to be talking about going to space. We’re not going to have the energy to go there.”
As he was finishing his degree last fall, Gordon was asked to speak at the luncheon for the engineering school’s seniors. Typically, he was reticent.
“I was looking around [at the department] and thinking, there’s a lot of smart dudes and gals here. Why’d they pick me?’ I was talking to a cousin, and she said, ‘If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for us.’”
“Us?” he asked. She meant African Americans. He thought about it. How many times has a black student spoken at the commencement ceremony? He decided to say yes.
He prepared a short speech for the ceremony about how, no matter their background, all people in the Engineering School had similar goals. There were about 500 people inside Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall that day. Everyone wore a suit.
“The deans were there, the vice chancellor was there. I was nervous.” Finally, it was his time to speak. Then, a funny thing happened. “I got up there, and as soon as I started speaking, I got real calm.”
All eyes were on him, and Ben Gordon was ready for the attention.