Q&A with Manuela Romero
As the assistant dean for student diversity and academic services you serve two distinct roles. How do they complement each other and what are your priorities?
The roles may seem very different, but they are really one and the same! This past year, the college combined two offices — the Engineering General Resources and the Diversity Affairs Office. The offices are distinct yet our goal is the same: provide services to students to help them transition into departments and successfully graduate from the College of Engineering. Both offices advise and support students in the college, serve as the entry-point, meet with prospective students, and help students realize their goal of becoming engineers, particularly at a point when their dream seems so far away. The staff in the two offices is an exceptional group. Collectively, we are committed to helping students succeed. One of my priorities is to help others fully appreciate the role these offices play in the life of engineering students. Student services is a profession just like engineering and it is important to recognize that these individuals are vital to student success.
Another priority is to carefully look at our processes and assure that we are reaching all students. Where we find gaps, we will examine how to best fill them.
As a sociologist interested in organizational climate and culture, I am excited to add my skills to the team. Enhancing diversity and improving the climate of the undergraduate student body is challenging and demanding work and requires a systemic approach. It cannot be the job of one individual or office. It has to be the work of the entire college. I look forward to collaborating with the faculty, staff and students in continuing to create a culturally and ethnically vibrant environment rich in professional and intellectual opportunities.
Why is diversity important?
Diversity reminds us that people are individuals and not categories. Recognizing people’s distinct experiences and perspectives enriches our educational experiences and helps us grow as individuals. New ideas are often generated from diverse settings where people think and approach problems differently. Our context is becoming increasingly global and educational experiences rich in diversity prepare students who are better able to interact in these settings. The objective is to create learning environments that welcome and value diverse perspectives.
What programmatic efforts exist to support diversity?
We have some very strong efforts in diversity, from pre-college to graduate. Our Engineering Summer Program (ESP) is one of the most long-standing programs in the nation. The Leaders in Engineering Excellence and Diversity (LEED) is both a scholarship and an academic, professional and social support program for underrepresented undergraduate minority students and females of all ethnicities. The Summer Undergraduate Research Experience is a graduate recruitment program, which recruits high achieving underrepresented students from throughout the U.S. to participate in research with our faculty. The Graduate Engineering Research Scholars (GERS) enrolls about 12 students a year and boasts a better than 95 percent retention and graduation rate. Thanks to the GERS program, our college produces more underrepresented minority women PhDs (as a percentage of total PhD production) than any other top-25 engineering program in the country.
This year these programs have a combined celebration. In 1999, Andrea Ashwood was a high school student at Brookfield Central High School and participated in ESP. She enrolled here and in 2005 received her bachelor’s degree from the Department of Mechanical Engineering . She worked toward her master’s degree with the support of the GERS program. In January, Andrea will receive her PhD in mechanical engineering under Associate Professor Tim Shedd. African-American women make up only 30 (one-half of one percent) of the 6,500 PhDs awarded annually in the U.S. This year, Andrea will be one of them. She is but one example of the combined impact of these programs on the national landscape.
We should be very proud of these programs and celebrate their success but there is always room for improvement. For us the challenge remains in undergraduate recruitment and retention. Research suggests — and we have seen this in our own programs — that early faculty contact is critical to retention and that early and continuous engagement is crucial to recruitment. In the next few years we will work on enhancing our efforts in these areas.
What is the status of the climate on the engineering campus and how can faculty staff, alumni and friends help create welcoming learning environments?
Organizational climates or cultures are fairly stable, but organizational environments are dynamic. Steady demographic shifts are taking place as the world is experiencing a major technological transformation, making the world smaller and much more connected. This increased globalization makes it more likely that we will interact with people from cultures, backgrounds and beliefs different from our own. On our campus, there is a need to increase appreciation for these trends and embrace more deeply the added value of having learning environments that are ethnically diverse and more welcoming to people of diverse backgrounds. The study abroad experience is a good example. Students who study abroad often report that their experience was life-changing. They also report learning more about their own cultural values and biases and that after this experience they were more likely to seek interactions with people from cultures different from their own. It is a natural preference for people to reach out to others that are like them; our challenge is making it “natural” to reach out to people regardless of the perceived differences. All of us can do something to encourage this to happen.
Our alumni and friends play an important role in pushing the College of Engineering to provide for all aspects of our students’ development — not just technical, but cultural and social as well. Our alumni experience firsthand how the workplace is rapidly changing.
Our faculty and staff can reflect on and share their own experiences so that students can see themselves in these experiences. In student services, the most common thing we see and hear is that students think they are the only ones in their particular situation. I can’t tell you the sense of relief I see in students’ faces when they hear that there are others like them or that their experiences are similar to others. Students also want to know that faculty are real people with real problems, and when it comes to students from diverse backgrounds (first-generation, low- income, underrepresented, etc.), this is where faculty can have the most impact. Our faculty can frame their experiences in ways to enhance student learning and to facilitate collaborative learning experiences.
Lastly, there are two important skills we all can develop: remaining vigilant of our biases and assumptions, and growing in our empathy. It is difficult for members of a dominant culture or group to “see” their own biases and assumptions, especially when most around them share similar beliefs. Remaining sensitive and aware of how our actions could alienate or distance persons from underrepresented groups can take us a long way toward making sure all members of our College of Engineering community feel they belong.