She dared a different vision

Gladys Mae West is the first Black woman to be employed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Dahlgren Division. [US Air Force]

BY KEISHA BELL | Visionary Brief

Some people’s parents were engineers, doctors, and lawyers in the 1930s, but what if your parents were sharecroppers and you had no interest in working in the fields? The idea of hard work does not scare you. You simply dare to have a different vision for your life.

Meet Gladys Mae West, née Brown. Born in either 1930 or 1931, in 1956, she became the second black woman to be employed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Dahlgren Division. She is a mathematician who did computing for the US Armed Forces before electronic systems. West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018.

Growing up in the Dinwiddie County, Va. farming community, West was well aware of how society expected her future. If she decided to work in a factory like her parents or to pick corn, cotton, and tobacco, such as her ancestors before her, no one would have been surprised.

Even today, it is common for children to choose to work in the same industries as their parents. West, however, was not afraid to believe in her dream. She stepped out into the unknown and made vital contributions to society.

Before completing her secondary education, she discovered that the top two students of her class would be rewarded full scholarships to Virginia State College, now known as Virginia State University. That information was the “break” West needed. She worked hard and became the valedictorian of her high school class.

West studied mathematics at Virginia State College, where she received both Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees. Proving that it is never too late to learn, in 2018, West completed a doctorate via a distance-learning program with Virginia Tech.

West is known for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth. In the early 1960s, she participated in an astronomical study that proved the regularity of Pluto’s motion relative to Neptune. She also has a published body of work.

Many may not know but are familiar with Global Positioning System (GPS). West was one of the teams of mathematicians who worked on the development of the satellite geodesy models that were eventually incorporated into the GPS.

Fortunately, West had a supervisor who supported her professional growth. He recommended her for management positions, and she excelled. West worked at NSWC Dahlgren Division for 42 years and retired in 1998.

Keisha Bell

West dared a different vision, proving that if you can see it, you can achieve it. Can you see it? Be inspired.

Keisha Bell is an attorney, author, and public servant.

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