Name: Niko Simpkins

Hometown: Chattanooga, Tenn.

Major: Mechanical engineering with a concentration in engineering entrepreneurship

Activities: The Underrepresented Student Advisory Board in Engineering (USABE), Weingarten Ambassador, Peer Mentor at the Africana Studies Summer Institute, National Society of Black Engineers 

How did you decide on your major?

Believe it or not, I decided on mechanical engineering because I was not good at math. When I was younger, I was terrible at math. I almost failed out of my math class in school. I had to relearn how to multiply and everything. I knew you could do STEM as well as business through engineering, which both were cool, but mainly I had talked to a lot of people who said that what you’re doing in college doesn’t really matter after college. Although the humanities interested me, [I chose engineering] to prove a point to myself. I was trying to grow and challenge myself. 

And I absolutely question that choice. Every time I wake up after spending hours in the lab working on a circuit diagram, I question that choice. But I don’t regret it, because I’m very happy with where I am. It’s like the butterfly effect: If you change one thing about the past, you never know where you'd end up now. Through mechanical engineering, I have met some super awesome people. All the people there—especially compared to other engineering fields—are very passionate about what they do, and that’s really enriched my experience at Penn.

Tell us about your involvement with USABE.

I was the first president of USABE. It was an awesome experience and it helped me find a place and learn how I could make an impact at Penn. I looked at different organizations at Penn and I was just trying to find a community, as a lot of people do. The main thing that drives me in life is that at the end of it all, I want to do something that people look at—it doesn’t matter if it’s a lot of people or only a couple—and think, “That’s a role only [Niko] could have played.” I want to leave a very “me” type of mark wherever I go. 

USABE is something that had been thrown around in years prior, but when the opportunity came along when I was a sophomore, I saw a chance to create something and work with a lot of issues that I really care about, namely underrepresented students. It’s interesting work. How do you resolve people not feeling supported? How do you create opportunities for people? How do you communicate to people that they have people who are creating opportunities for them? There are a lot of cool questions I get to tackle, and I felt like I had the resources around me to actually make an impact. Overall, it was super awesome to lead that effort. It also enabled me to meet a lot of really cool people who are very passionate about that stuff. Lifelong friends, for sure. 

What about your Weingarten Ambassadorship?

I attended the Africana Studies Summer Institute pre–freshman program and they had an event where they brought in different campus resource people. One of them was Ryan Miller from Weingarten. He started talking, and he was super cool! Lo and behold, I go into the semester, boom, get my ass kicked. I was barely younger than the grade I got back on my first chem exam, so I went to Weingarten and it carried me through. 

There were so many people who didn’t know about those resources or didn’t really believe in their power. A lot of the work I did as an ambassador centered around recreating opportunities for people to interact with these resources outside of actually going in, and also facilitating the process. That was a really cool thing to tackle, because I gravitate toward people who are cool to work with and issues that I can relate to. The people at Weingarten are super awesome. It felt relevant. Giving people exposure to a resource is one of the biggest factors in getting them to actually use it. 

At Weingarten, we’re not adding anything to anybody. We’re just helping people clear their space to do what they can already do.

Favorite thing you’ve done in the last four years?

I created an album during COVID–19. I had an internship with a medical device company that got canceled because of all the restrictions. No one expected me to have a job, so I took that summer to teach myself how to audio engineer. I could already produce music, I could already write songs, and I had recording equipment. Those are the Infinity Stones of music. If you can do those things, you got it. So I had all of that and I was like, “Lemme try to snap those fingers!” It was really cool because I got to bring my friends in on it: from the cover art, to the marketing plan, to the instrumental backing. My favorite part of that whole thing was being able to perform it. I was gone the whole COVID–19 year, so when I came back to campus this fall, seeing people I hadn’t seen in a while reciting my lyrics just hit so different. It made me realize how much I'd missed this community. 

The album is basically about getting your bag in the way of doing your thing. There was definitely a COVID–19 influence because a lot of people were doing self–help stuff, whether it was cooking, working out, or whatever; it was finding time to get your bag. I was working on a lot of things during COVID–19. In that year, I had met and done interpersonal work, in some capacity, with every single dean. I was waking up at six, doing meetings with trustees and all sorts of stuff.

On top of that, though, having the album going was a reflection of getting your bag. Meeting with trustees is not the bag. The bag is the things that you like to do. If you want to make the best zucchini bread ever, do that shit! Get in your bag. 

Looking back on your four years at Penn, what are you most proud of?

[I’m proud of] carving out my own path at Penn, and the people who enabled me to do that. Carving out that path means being an engineer. When I first came in and told people I was a mechanical engineer, they were like, “No really, what’s your major?” I think [I’m most proud of] doing that and still being able to have fun, do music, have the preprofessional stuff going, and make an impact in the community. I didn’t sign up for a consulting club; I did the things I cared about doing. That’s what I mean by carving my own path. I let the things I care the most about guide me, and I got those things. I cared about making change for underrepresented students, so I did just that. I cared about talking directly to people who can make change, so I did that. I cared about having career opportunities, so I got that. Carving that path out and not letting it be contorted by people saying you can’t do stuff. 

The majority of what I’m doing is not seen. I’m not even a good engineer like that! Who’s gonna do engineering if you’re not good at math? I just got dragged for four years, for what? You gotta be insane to do that. A lot of people said, “Doing music at the same time, that’s a lot.” And yeah, but do what you love. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I did what I loved. It’s given me so many awesome opportunities and taught me so much about myself. 

More importantly, beyond the opportunity, I care about the people: the people who enabled me and empowered me to do that.

What have we forgotten to ask about?

I’ll try to throw something in there that people might find helpful to themselves so it’s not just me talking about myself. I’m very happy where I am right now because I followed the things I cared about and let those things guide me. More specifically, when I didn’t know what those things were, I let the people I care about and trust guide me. 

What matters to me most is belief. Belief that you can find your own way. If you believe in the outcome before it happens, that'll make it happen. If you don’t try, it won’t. Somebody has to go out and do the stuff that people are saying can’t be done. If more people implement that belief into their lives, they'll be surprised by how many of their goals fit neatly into their bubble.

What’s next for you after Penn?

I’m going into consulting. I know, but John Legend did it and he’s EGOT now, so maybe there’s something to it. As of right now, I’m gonna do the whole management consulting thing and see if I like it. I’m not gonna be one of those people who does it even if I hate it. If I hate it, then I’m out. 

What I would like to do is take two years after being there and then explore the music, kinda like what John Legend did. Then you have the money and resources, so you know how to navigate a little bit. I think, as long as I can keep my relationship with music on my own terms, then I'd do it. I’m fine just doing it not as my main job, or making enough money so that I don’t need to work and can just go and make music. But I don’t want to have to commercialize it. I’d rather sell my skill set than my passion.

Lightning Round:

Favorite movie of all time? I’ll say Shaolin Soccer.

Last song you listened to? Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” by Michael Jackson.

Your no–skip album? Playboi Carti’s self–titled album. That thing changed my life.

There are two types of people at Penn … People who asked you what you did this summer to know about your internships and people who asked you what you did this summer to know what you did this summer.

And you are? The latter. I absolutely do not want to hear about anybody’s internship. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.