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Strong engineers, strong community

The 2014 graduating class of L.E.E.D. scholars: From left: Kevin Beene (BME), Lianne Estrella (CEE), Erin Connors (ME), Meng Xiong (ME), Benedetta Cannestra (CBE), Victor Torres (ME), Chelsey Denton (ECE) and Nehemiah Edwards (ECE). Students not in attendance: Robin Kraidich (MS&E) and Amy Martin (BME).

A student’s first few weeks on campus can determine the social connections, academic confidence, access to UW-Madison resources and opportunities, and other factors that affect his or her entire college career. For the L.E.E.D. (Leaders in Engineering Excellence and Diversity) Scholars Program, that period is an important part of making sure the College of Engineering retains top-tier students from underrepresented groups such as women, ethnic minorities, and those from low-income backgrounds.

In addition to receiving varying levels of tuition support, the current cohort of 120 L.E.E.D. Scholars benefits from a holistic support structure. The L.E.E.D. program connects scholars with upperclassmen mentors before the scholars begin their first year. The program also encourages students to use college resources such as the Undergraduate Learning Center and career services, and provides opportunities for faculty mentorship and research. Program participants regularly meet with College of Engineering faculty, representatives from industry, and L.E.E.D. alums.

Donations from companies and individuals support both the program and the scholarship fund. Desiree Alva, who administers the program as assistant director for undergraduate and retention programs in the college Diversity Affairs Office, says the college’s mission is not simply to provide scholarships to help underrepresented students pay their tuition, but to support them throughout their time at UW-Madison. “When I’m reading through the thank-you letters that L.E.E.D. scholars write to the donors, a common theme is they are able to focus their time and attention on their studies, research and leadership opportunities—rather than juggling a part-time job,” Alva says. “This allows them to successfully develop as engineers and makes a huge difference in their future opportunities.”

The program awards scholarships to about 30 new students every academic year. It’s crucial to build private support for the scholarships, Alva says, in order to assist UW-Madison in attracting talented new engineering students who struggle with financial concerns. The program’s scholars are spread throughout the engineering disciplines: L.E.E.D. graduates in 2014 spanned from biomedical engineering majors to materials science and engineering. Lianne Estrella, a L.E.E.D. scholar who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering in spring 2014, says the program’s professional-development opportunities, and the community it builds among underrepresented students, provided a crucial support system. “I always knew I wanted to be a civil engineer, but did not know what it would take to get there,” Estrella says. “This program inspired me to achieve my dreams by being persistent, even during difficult times.”

Another L.E.E.D. scholar, Robin Kraidich, who graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering, credits the program with giving students an exceptional UW-Madison experience on all fronts. “If I was having a difficult time in a class, a family issue, or personal problem, I knew I could always find someone to talk to,” Kraidich says. “The Diversity Affairs Office became a gathering place for students in L.E.E.D. I could stop in and talk to upperclassmen and get advice on electives, scholarships and classes.”

The donors who support L.E.E.D. are motivated by a desire to make a difference that goes beyond even this impressive group of students. “They really believe in trying to do their part in creating a more inclusive and diverse community here in the College of Engineering,” Alva says. “They know they can make an impact that way.”

Scott Gordon
8/11/2014