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Empowering engineering: Patrice Banks '02

Patrice Banks '02 is standing behind a table strewn with an assortment of car parts— rusty rotors, worn brake pads, dirty filters and frayed timing belts—at the edge of an oil-stained parking lot of an auto parts and service store outside Philadelphia.

Listening attentively and taking notes, a dozen women and one man who have signed up for her monthly Girls Auto Clinic stand in a half-ring in front of Banks. “They’ll up-sell you on everything,” Banks says about car mechanics and dealers. “They bank on us being uneducated consumers.”

There are murmurs, a few heads nod. A woman says a mechanic told her she needed a new catalytic converter. She shelled out $1,200, she says, “and it still did the same thing.”

Banks asks her several questions about the car’s problem.

“I can tell you it wasn’t the catalytic converter,” Banks says.

She should know.

Banks, a 2002 Lehigh materials science and engineering graduate, is also a certified mechanic. She now stands on the precipice of success. Investors are talking to her about taking Girls Auto Clinics national with franchises. The self-published auto repair guide that Banks wrote for clinic participants has been picked up by Touchstone Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Since launching Girls Auto Clinic in the Philadelphia area two years ago, Banks has gotten a flurry of media coverage, including O magazine in July. She garnered attention after she wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post about quitting her six-figure job at DuPont to launch the women-only clinics, which she views as a way to empower women.

She is also finally about to realize her dream of opening an all-female auto repair shop in Upper Darby, outside Philadelphia. When completed, it will be staffed by women mechanics and include a nail salon and a place for children to play.

So how did this Lehigh engineering graduate get here?

By any measure, Banks was already a success. The first in her family to graduate from high school and college, she landed a high-paying job at DuPont running her own lab as a failure analyst.

Banks faced challenges growing up poor and biracial in predominantly white, blue-collar Phoenixville, about 30 miles west of Philadelphia. The daughter of a single mother, Banks looked to school and the stable influence of her grandfather, who would often help her family buy food and drive them because her family didn’t own a car. Her mother, who worked various jobs as a line cook, factory worker and secretary, told her education was the ticket to a better life.

She was an AP and honors student at Phoenixville High School, where she excelled in math and science. She liked solving problems. For a while, she considered studying psychology, but her mother suggested engineering because she liked science.

Banks applied to Drexel University to study engineering, but at the last minute, her guidance counselor suggested she consider Lehigh. She was invited to attend an event that weekend at Lehigh for prospective minority students. She had never left Phoenixville, but she dropped everything to attend.

Her grandfather drove her to Bethlehem, and the weekend at Lehigh turned out to be a revelation, she says. For the first time in her life, she was among dozens of students just like her who were passionate about learning. She went to parties where people talked about poetry and sang. And she marveled at the campus’s bucolic beauty.

From that point, she knew she wanted to go to Lehigh.

At Lehigh, Banks initially chose to major in chemical engineering “because they make the most money out of college,” she says. One month into her major, she switched to materials science and engineering and never regretted it.

Read the full story in the Fall/Winter 2016 Edition of the Lehigh Bulletin.

-Story by Wendy Solomon, special to Lehigh University's Office of Communications and Public Affairs

February 8, 2017

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