In 2007, women made up only 30% of Penn Engineering’s undergraduate class when Susan Davidson, Weiss Professor in Computer and Information Science, first launched the Advancing Women in Engineering (AWE) program.
“We are addressing a pipeline problem,” says Davidson, “Plenty of women enter into math and science fields, but many do not enter engineering because they don’t know what it is. But in any of those fields, women often leave because they don’t have a community to reach out to for support.”
The AWE program introduces engineering as an exciting field that helps to solve problems and improve our lives. It also builds community and has already made a big impact in Penn Engineering. Now, women make up nearly 40% of the School’s undergraduate engineers. The sense of belonging, connection to other students, and mentorship opportunities available through AWE are helping to retain women students and empowering them to become leaders in the field.
But, Davidson admits there is still a lot of work to do.
“It’s like rolling a rock uphill,” she says. “Even when women make up half of the undergraduate class, we’d still have to work hard to make sure that percentage doesn’t slip.”
Sophomores, Phoebe Vallapureddy, pursuing a degree in CBE, and Jessica Liang, pursuing a degree in CIS, are excited to be taking on some of that work this week as they help lead AWE’s pre-orientation program. If there’s one thing that they’d advise, it’s to not underestimate the importance of community.
“I’m looking forward to giving first year students a boost of confidence as they head into the school year,” says Vallapureddy. “Participating in the program last year gave me the connections and confidence I needed to succeed. Meeting other students in my dorm, visiting the classrooms where I’d have my first classes and meeting some of the School’s faculty members before the semester started, were just a few things that made the transition easier. Engineering is hard, especially at Penn, but it makes a world of difference to have supportive friends like the ones you meet through AWE to do it with you.”
“Many of the friends I learned to rely on were people I met through AWE,” says Liang. “The first year can be very challenging, both socially and academically, but if you surround yourself with the right people, they will help you persevere through anything.”
This year, 78 first-year students are exploring Penn through AWE’s pre-orientation program. And for those who missed it, there will always be upcoming events and opportunities.
“A unique and essential aspect of this program is that it is led by students,” says Michaile Rainey, Director of AWE. “The Student Advisory Board, made up of both undergraduate and graduate students, meets regularly to coordinate collaborative events with other departments. Once the school year begins, we will host socials, mentoring activities, wellness events and career development opportunities.”
“These events are open to all students who support the advancement of women in engineering,” she continues. “We are working to increase the diversity and equity of the School and the communities that will surround our future engineers when they graduate, and that goal becomes more achievable as more students genuinely participate.”