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Career Jumpstarter

Cheryl Freeman-Smith is committed to diversifying the manufacturing, transportation and logistics industries.

Cheryl Freeman-Smith and Brandon Nichols stand beside several Rivian electric vehicles.
Cheryl Freeman-Smith, left, dean of career programs and continuing education and director of apprenticeship partnerships at Olive-Harvey College, and OHC vice president of academic affairs Brandon Nichols Image: Colin Boyle ’20, ’20 MS / Block Club Chicago

By Alexa Harrison
Spring 2024

When Cheryl Freeman-Smith looked around at Commencement in 1992, she was one of only 39 Black engineers in her Northwestern graduating class out of around 400. And there were “only four of us in industrial engineering,” she recalls. 

Today, Freeman-Smith, who grew up in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, is committed to holding the door wide open for other Black students who are interested in careers in manufacturing, transportation and logistics. For the past 12 years, Freeman-Smith has worked at Olive-Harvey College (OHC), a community college on Chicago’s far South Side that is part of the City Colleges of Chicago consortium. As OHC’s dean of career programs and continuing education and director of apprenticeship partnerships, she creates opportunities for students from low-income communities to gain the specialized skills required for the modern economy. 

Freeman-Smith has developed apprenticeships in information technology and manufacturing, looking for “the latest and greatest opportunities in the industry.” 

Most recently, she partnered with California-based carmaker Rivian to develop a first-of-its-kind electric vehicle service training program at OHC’s transportation, distribution and logistics hub, a state-of-the-art training facility. The full-time, five-month apprenticeship launched in 2023 with five students from across the country, providing full benefits and $26 an hour. Rivian hired all five graduates of the program upon its completion. Freeman-Smith aims to increase the cohort to 12 and enroll more Chicago-area participants and more women. 

Freeman-Smith, who worked in supply chain management and workforce development before joining OHC, also revamped the school’s supply chain program and introduced an aviation maintenance program. Her approach has led to a 30% increase in enrollment. 

“[Sharing my experience] has been a great way to ... encourage other women, other people of color, other African Americans — and to say, ‘These opportunities exist, and they can exist for you too!’”

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