Engineering program encourages women to embrace being a minority, stay in program

(Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Thornburg)

The Women in Engineering program has been a part of the College of Engineering for the past five years, and through its various programs it has not only helped provide a positive experience within the college but it has also increased retention rates for women, according to Jennifer Thornburg, adviser to the program and the retention coordinator for the dean’s office in the College of Engineering,

Thornburg said retaining women in a field they are often a minority in has oftentimes been an issue, and she has hoped for the Women in Engineering program to aid in that issue.

“The Women in Engineering program fell to me because retaining the women in engineering is a huge barrier that we’ve always tried to gap,” Thornburg said.

Thornburg said since utilizing the Women in Engineering program, the College of Engineering has seen drastic effects.

“Just by the sheer numbers, the women in the College of Engineering has not only increased but we’re also retaining more of them,” Thornburg said.

Thornburg said the retention rate last year was 75 percent, and it increased to 78 percent this year. This increase is leading Thornburg to believe that the retention programs are effective, should be continued and could possibly enable them to reach their goal of an 80 percent retention rate.

“Women in Engineering is supposed to be a way for a minority in engineering, which is women, to have a support group and get to know each other within engineering so you have people you can go talk to if you need help,” Allison Clark, senior in chemical engineering, said.

While the program as a whole has been beneficial to women in engineering, Thornburg said it is more like an umbrella to several other programs directed toward women within the College of Engineering.

One of the main programs within the Women in Engineering program is the mentoring program.

In the spring, Thornburg said she invites upperclassmen women in the College of Engineering to volunteer their time to be mentors for the incoming class of freshmen students. In the summer every freshman woman is then allocated a mentor and will have that mentor throughout the entirety of her first year at Kansas State.

Jacquelyn Sommers, senior in architectural engineering, said her experience as a mentee when she was a freshman led her to come back as a mentor for the past three years.

“I kept coming back as a way to give back to younger students,” Sommers said.

Sommers also said she enjoys sharing her experiences and passing down tips regarding classes to the freshmen entering the program, especially since there are far fewer women in the program compared to men.

“One of the harder things about being a woman in engineering is that in our classes there aren’t that many of us, and the few of us there are sprinkled throughout the class,” Sommers said. “Having programs like Women in Engineering have helped us put a name to a face so we can then get together and have someone to sit by during classes.”

Being able to have those familiar faces in the hallways is one of Sommers’ favorite parts of the mentoring program, along with being able to maintain relationships with some of her past mentees.

The mentor program has been around for four years, and Clark said it especially has had a positive effect on retention rates.

“I think it’s beneficial because we’re helping keep those women in the College of Engineering by targeting them, helping them out and making sure they stay,” Clark said.

Thornburg said the mentoring program isn’t necessarily academically focused either; she’s more looking for women to build relationships with others in the program like Sommers.

“(The mentoring program) is not even really academic related,” Thornburg said. “Since engineering is already such a rigorous curriculum we use it as a way to connect with other women in engineering and maybe take a break to connect with other things on campus socially.”

Clark also said she has met several of her best friends through Women in Engineering programs as they have not only provided her with people to study with but also friends to go to the Rec Complex with or out to eat with.

Clark said she also enjoys being able to develop connections with women who have now graduated and gone on to work at companies alongside watching them come back to speak at K-State.

“I think (the Women in Engineering program) has helped a lot of girls stay with engineering and get through it a little easier,” Clark said.