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Student-led Mentoring Program Fostering Retention of Female Undergraduate Students in STEM Fields

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

WIED: Strategies Beyond the Classroom

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1129.1 - 24.1129.7



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Paper Authors


Raquel Perez-Castillejos New Jersey Institute of Technology

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Dr. Raquel Perez-Castillejos is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Her research ( focuses on the development of tools for cell and tissue biology using micro- and nanotechnologies. Raquel obtained her Ph.D. with the National Center of Microelectronics in Barcelona. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the Laboratory of Miniaturized Systems (Univ. São Paulo, Brasil) and later at Harvard University with the Whitesides group. Dr. Perez-Castillejos is co-director of the NSF-funded REU summer program for neuroengineering and faculty adviser for the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) at NJIT.

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Priya Radhi Santhanam New Jersey Institute of Technology

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Dr. Priya Radhi Santhanam is a research engineer at ExxonMobil Upstream Research Company. She obtained her Ph.D. and M.S. in chemical engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Her dissertation work focused on scale-up models for materials prepared using ball milling. She is one of the founding members of the graduate section of SWE at NJIT and served as the president for two years.

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Student-led Mentoring Program Fostering Recruitment and RetentionA unique mentoring program was developed and launched at our institute in Fall 2012.The program was constructed with a goal to address two key issues related to women inSTEM fields: recruitment and retention.The national average percentage female enrollments in STEM undergraduate andgraduate programs are around 18% and 22% respectively. A comprehensive literatureanalysis demonstrates that one of the primary reasons for the appalling statistics is thelack of a positive support system. The same issue was also validated via qualitativeinformation based on meetings and interactions with female faculty and students in ourinstitute. Despite all the available resources, female students expressed lack of confidencein expressing ideas freely in a male-dominated class or project team which subsequentlyled to reduced confidence in the academic and personal pursuits and affected thestudent’s growth.The students of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), with the financial supportof the dean and college of engineering, created a mentoring program aimed atproviding female students in campus with a multilevel support network. The coreconcept of this program is to connect the female students with multiple mentors or rolemodels (from diverse career stages) to whom they can relate and interact personally. Weformed multiple small groups with low student-to-mentor ratios that functioned asindependent, close-knit environments that enable students to share their thoughts andseek guidance without inhibitions.Typical mentoring programs consist of one or more students and a mentor. However, thestructure of our program was quite distinctive. Each group consisted of twoundergraduate students (preferable one first-/second-year student and onejunior/senior), a graduate student, a faculty mentor or an industry mentor. Preferably, allthe members of a team would study or work in related fields. The industry mentor wouldtypically be an alumnus of the institute, which facilitated the connection with thestudents in the team. The benefits of this unique multilevel design (i.e., with teammembers at multiple career stages) include:  Juniors, seniors, and graduate students benefit from being mentored as well as gaining leadership skills by acting as mentors for the younger students.  Students receive personalized academic support from peers such as help in choice of classes, homework and exams, as well as locating research and job opportunities in campus .  Students get valuable professional guidance through their interaction with the faculty and industry professionals who can provide support in interview preparation, communication skills, internship and job search, etc.The program was launched for the academic year 2012-13with 30 different groups and 108participants, including students and professionals. The agenda of the mentoring programwas developed keeping in mind that students as well as mentors have a busy scheduleduring the academic year. Hence, each group was given the freedom to choose when andhow they wanted to interact with each other. To help keeping the teams engaged with theprogram a monthly newsletter was sent to all the participants comprising informationalitems on professional development and mentoring such as career-building articles andworkshops and talks on campus. The Society of Women Engineers, both in campus andnationally through webinars, provided a solid and diverse agenda of professionaldevelopment tools that supported the participants in the mentoring program during thewhole year.At the end of the program a survey was distributed among the participants in request fortheir opinions about the usefulness of as well as possible improvements to the program.Students were asked to provide the reasons why they joined the mentoring program andtheir responses included interest in finding a mentor (“I believe that having a mentor inlife is really important. You always need to have someone to look up to and that's whatattracted me towards this program. I'm glad I signed up for it.”), networking andmentoring younger students (“[I joined the program to] network with others in [the]medical device industry, to utilize my knowledge and experience to mentor juniors in thesame field” or “To share my experiences with my other fellow students as well as takingadvantage of getting experienced by professional individuals, in addition to greatnetworking opportunity.”) Some were excited that their interaction with mentors fromindustry would improve their options to land an internship (“I wanted to try to find a jobor internship through this program. I was hoping to get help on how to find a job orinternship.”) The survey showed that the program had been able to attract students inhigh-risk groups such as returning-to-school and international female students, whomfind it typically more difficult to integrate themselves in a mostly-male campus: “as a non-traditional student, re-entering college, and not an Engineering major, I hoped to form abond and socialize with other women. (…) I'm returning to school after a 30-year leave. Iam studying Business Information Systems. I enjoy the campus but since it is a male-dominated school I wanted the ‘sisterhood’ and hoped that I would learn/teach my youngerladies” or “as an international student, and a woman in engineering, the first couple ofyears in campus and in the United States were challenging for me both personally andprofessionally. As a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate, I felt I was now in the position of helpingother students with the different concerns, and everyday troubles they could face, and ofsharing with other women engineers our experiences in this field.”Feedback from participants also showed that the lack of a rigid meeting schedule andlocation imposed to all the participants helped each team finding their favorite times tomeet. We recorded that certain groups met on campus while others preferred virtualmeetings—e.g., Skype, Gtalk—or a combination of both. Additionally, in some teams themultilayered structure of the groups (with participants at diverse career stages) translatedinto global and partial meetings in which all or just some of the participants (respectively)would meet. For example, only the undergrads in some teams would meet in order todiscuss the best routes to study for the exams of a common course whereas all themembers of the team would meet to share approaches for securing an internship, a job, afellowship, or a research opportunity or for writing a resume. We also requestedparticipants if they found the monthly newsletter useful for their meetings and received apositive response from about half of the participants with about 25% of all theparticipants giving the newsletter the maximum rating (5/5).The mentoring program proved useful to create stable, personal connections betweenfemale students—and also with the few male students who decided to take advantage ofthe opportunity and experienced a (relatively) unusual distribution of roles in STEMfields with women holding the most experienced position in the STEM group. The wholecommunity of mentors and mentees also interacted through an ad-hoc group created onLinkedIn, which has also allowed to keep the contacts alive even after the end of theacademic year and after some of the participants graduated and moved far from campus.Overall, the mentoring program presented here was able to bring together participantsfrom different stages in their careers in the same group. The program was successful inattracting industry mentors who want to give back to their communities but find thatuniversities are oftentimes too focused in providing students with in-campus support(faculty and university personnel) and forget that professionals outside of the academicworld are the main constituents of our programs and the employers of our graduatingstudents. The program was also successful in attracting students because the programitself was designed and run by students. Remarkably the program received the support ofall institutions in campus, which was key to reach out to all the students in campus, aswell as it received the support of the dean of engineering, who funded the program whilegiving freedom to the student association to make the executive decisions. Given theextremely positive responses we received from the participants in the first run of ourmentoring program, we believe that this model of mentoring may be of great use forother universities. If this abstract is accepted, we will provide further details, includingthe lessons learnt from the second run of the mentoring program that starts again in twoweeks.

Perez-Castillejos, R., & Santhanam, P. R. (2014, June), Student-led Mentoring Program Fostering Retention of Female Undergraduate Students in STEM Fields Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--23062

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