Engineering student is gaining real-world experience through a SMART scholarship

Sekai Clayton, a rising senior, is serving a summer internship with the Department of Defense.

Sekai Clayton
Sekai Clayton decided to attend VCU after a memorable visit to the College of Engineering’s Capstone Design Expo. (Contributed photo)

By Joan Tupponce

Sekai Clayton finds living on his own for the first time a stimulating, fun challenge. The rising senior is adjusting to his new SMART summer internship with the U.S. Department of Defense in Northern Virginia.

“I have worked before and am confident in my skills as an engineer, but mastering a healthy work-life balance when you must provide for yourself is no small task,” said Clayton, who is majoring in electrical engineering in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering and will graduate next spring.

Clayton learned about the Science, Math and Research for Transformation scholarship when he received an email from the VCU National Scholarship Office. SMART scholars receive full tuition, annual stipends, internships and guaranteed employment with the DoD after graduation.

“After doing a quick Google search, I saw the benefits, and it was an easy decision to make,” said Clayton, who worked with the National Scholarship Office to apply for the award. “I was able to receive this award because of Dr. [Gregory E.] Triplett’s mentorship during COVID. I am currently fortunate enough to get paid to complete my degree and obtain real work experience to open up new opportunities in the future. This award is my most notable accomplishment so far, and I can’t thank those like Dr. Triplett enough for their continual support.”

It’s important to help students of color gain experiences on the security clearance side of the Department of Defense, said Triplett, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“This is where the best projects reside. Sekai brings new perspectives, and it was my goal to help enhance the competitiveness of his application,” Triplett said.

Clayton’s research at the Department of Defense is mainly unclassified but there are aspects that are classified, he said.

“I am learning a lot about communication, specifically in the high-frequency band. I get to play with the technology that is loaded into our systems,” he said.

Clayton’s interest in VCU

Clayton didn’t think about pursuing engineering until his senior year in high school when he took a digital logic design class and enjoyed it.

“My aptitude for science and math has always been high, so I decided to choose a career path that allowed me to explore this newfound interest,” he said.

VCU was not top of mind when he considered colleges, until he visited the campus to look at the senior design projects during the College of Engineering’s Capstone Design Expo.

“I must have gotten lost for an hour, and then it started to rain. Long story short, my socks squished on the car ride home. Even still I had fun. I felt like I was home,” he said. “When I walked down West Main Street that day, I felt it was a place I could grow and become a better version of myself. That’s why I decided to come to VCU.”

An advisor and mentor

Clayton owes a great deal to Triplett, he said.

Clayton was involved in two programs that Triplett started at VCU — the National Academy of Engineering Sophomore Challenge, a competition exclusively for sophomores to propose an idea related to the National Academy of Engineering Grand Challenges Scholars Program, and V-4Mation, a mentoring program for Black men in engineering.  

“His wisdom, resourcefulness and willingness to teach make him one of the greatest advisors I could have asked for, and I know he would do it for anyone willing to apply themselves to become eligible for their goals,” Clayton said of Triplett.

Triplett sees Clayton as a natural leader, he said.

“Sekai is very interested in continuous improvement. He wants to produce results at the forefront of technology and is committed to gaining experiences that expand his toolbox,” Triplett said. “I really appreciate his drive for excellence and dedication to strengthening communities.” 

Clayton’s position with the Department of Defense is already starting to open doors for him.

“Not many people get to have security clearances and get positions in the DOD at this age,” he said. “I am eager to learn new things and what it means to be a government employee. I am eternally grateful to everyone that enabled me to be in this position.”

Students interested in applying for the SMART scholarship can contact the National Scholarship Office for assistance.