Introduce a Girl to Engineering
National Engineers Week (EWeek) started in 1951 by the National Society of Professional Engineers and another eventful Eweek has passed us by (Feb. 21-27th). Each year, Eweek is filled with outreach events aimed at introducing students to the wonderful world of engineering, with a mission to "…ensure a diverse and well-educated future engineering workforce…".
Programs such as "Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day" occur on college campuses and elsewhere throughout the country. As a volunteer at these types of events, I feel good about giving back and hope that my story may inspire at least one student to consider a career in engineering. However, I do wonder what long-term impact these short exposure programs may have the diversity of the future workforce. The number of female and under-represented minorities has certainly increased since 1951. However, improvement has been slow in most fields, and, unfortunately, some fields have seen a recent decline in the number of female students (e.g., computer science).
More than just a day
The one-day-a-year events seem to leave students wanting more — more information, more projects, and more activities. That’s great!… as long as there is a way to follow up with these students. Outreach programs that interact with students for longer than a day or a week require a lot of commitment from volunteers, so many programs tend to leave it to the students and parents to follow-up on finding additional engineering-like programs and activities.
In looking for a better, more substantial, way to give back to my community — both the engineering community and my home (Oakland, CA), I stumbled upon the East Bay College Fund (EBCF) through a city government newsletter. The EBCF helps under-represented students in higher education access and succeed in college by working with them throughout high school (starting in the 9th grade). Their work focuses on students in the Oakland Unified School District, which was perfect for me.
I signed up to be a mentor to a future college student, and I was immediately surprised by the time I needed to invest in the program before officially becoming a mentor. Because the national graduate rate of the student population that the EBCF targets is only 20%, they are serious about their mentor-mentee matching process. They interviewed me to get an idea about my personality, my interests, and my beliefs. I entered the interview thinking — "Sure, I could be a good mentor" and left thinking "Hmmmm, maybe I’m not what they’re looking for."
Well, I’m human and it turns out that’s what they’re looking for — whew! It also turns out that they are very good at matching mentors with student mentees. I was matched with a quiet young Mexican woman from East Oakland, who was interested in majoring in engineering in college. Putting two introverts together always makes for an interesting first conversation - it’s 80% silence and that didn’t really bother either one of us. When we did start talking, there was a lot of excitement as we talked about our mutual interest in programming, photography, and, of course, engineering.
I have been with the program for almost a year, and my mentee is still working through her first year as a mechanical engineering student at the University of California. The additional ’volunteer time’ required for the program, which is actually quite minimal now (minimum of one phone call a month), has helped strengthen our relationship. Her first-year struggles brought back memories of when I was a college student receiving my first non-A. That devastating blow to my ego and made me think that engineering may not be the major for me, but I persisted. Sometimes you need someone that has been on the same path to let you know it’s Ok and it gets better ahead!