When College of Engineering senior Kyrah Williams got up to speak during Tuesday’s Engineering Week forum A Force for Change, Diversity in STEM, she voiced what many of her fellow students have on their minds.
“When you look at me what do you see?” posed Williams, president of the University of Miami chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, which co-sponsored the event. “My outer appearance shows that I am an African-American woman. What you cannot see are my passions and plans to become a successful engineer. Due to first impressions of me, society will label me as a minority in the workplace and in life.”
Being stereotyped and feeling isolated were two of the many issues that were brought to light during the forum, which featured UM President Julio Frenk, College of Engineering Dean Jean-Pierre Bardet, and Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Whitely.
The forum, which drew about 50 students, faculty, and staff members to the UM Faculty Club, was part of Engineers Week, an annual weeklong celebration that calls attention to the contributions engineers make to society and emphasizes the importance of learning math, science, and technical skills. Other events included a duct tape competition, a demonstration of a concrete canoe built by UM engineering students, and the “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,” which welcomed more than 150 girls from South Florida high schools to the University to stimulate their interest in the world of engineering through lectures and activities.
“How can we foster issues of diversity in the workplace if we don’t start in our school?” Williams asked at last Tuesday’s diversity forum.
Frenk said he was pleased to join the conversation because the meeting was a confluence of two of his aspirations for the future of the University. UM strives to be an “excellent university” and thus be strong in the fields of applied sciences and engineering. A $100 million gift from longtime UM benefactors Phillip and Patricia Frost towards those academic areas makes that goal more attainable.
President Frenk also added that as “an exemplary university” UM has a responsibility to provide a model for the larger society through the values and behaviors it embraces. “The value of diversity is at the core of an exemplary university,” he said. “Diversity is the right thing to do because we value every life equally. Every human being deserves the same opportunity.”
Beyond diversity, Frenk said, the University has to develop a “sense of belonging” so that every individual feels like they are welcomed into the institution. “Stereotyping and assigning certain characteristics to a group of people corrodes that sense of belonging,” he said.
Reading from a letter that he co-signed with other deans from the American Society of Engineering Education, Bardet said he was committed to bringing in more Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans to STEM education and to the College of Engineering. As part of this commitment, Bardet said the college would create partnerships with more diverse institutions, such as Miami Dade College and Florida A&M University, with the goal of increasing underrepresented minorities at UM.
Also, the college will commit to hiring more minority faculty members. Bardet recognized Professor Vincent Omachonu, who was at the gathering and is the only African-American professor at the college, which has 57 full-time faculty members.
“The fact that we are having this conversation is a great step in a very positive direction,” Whitely said.
She also agreed that recruiting minority faculty had to be a priority since many could become mentors to students. “When you have those mentors, things are easier simply because somebody else has gone down the very same path and will be with you,” Whitely said.
During the question-and-answer period, students brought up concerns about their schools – which included lack of diversity in the faculty, lack of financial resources, and lack of support from the faculty, as well as curriculums that occasionally did not directly serve their needs.
Engineering senior Natasha Koermer said some of her female peers had been told not to pursue the engineering field because “it was not for women.”
Bardet committed to hearing more about their concerns, and said he would set up focus groups as a way to address and resolve students’ concerns.
The UM chapters of Minority Women in Medicine and the National Association of Black Accountants also sponsored the forum.