Minority students discuss diversity

Sharon Vuong, a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering, speaks about female stereotypes within the fields of math and science.  (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor) Sharon Vuong, a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering, speaks about female stereotypes within the fields of math and science. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor)

Students gathered for a student panel discussion to address diversity within the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) as part of “A Celebration of Diversity in STEM” last Wednesday.

The panel was held in the Gates Hillman Complex and was hosted by organizations including Women@SCS, the Society of Women Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

Panelists responded to questions from the audience about their experiences as minorities in their respective STEM fields.

The panel featured four Carnegie Mellon students: Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering Sharon M. Vuong, Ph.D. candidate in human-computer interaction Tawanna Dillahunt, senior computer science and math double major Adrian Trejo Nuñez, and Ph.D. candidate in information systems Edward McFowland III.

Because the speakers were involved in outreach programs intended to give young minority students more opportunities, the panelists focused on the power of education on minorities.

McFowland volunteers for a program called Pittsburgh Science and Technology, which allows middle and high school students to participate in lessons in science and technology fields.

“I think young black men face a lot of challenges....The problems that resonate with me are the problems of young black men, and I think that, unfortunately, educated black men are an endangered species,” he said. “I want to be an example, as well as provide a haven for exploring these things.”

Vuong talked about her experience teaching at the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Talented Elementary and Secondary Students, C-MITES. She elaborated on the stereotypes that pressure young girls into avoiding engineering.

“There’s a slight stigma to being really girly, and some of them like being girly, and don’t really identify with engineering at all,” she said.

Vuong cited her own experience; when she applied to college, she originally intended to study professional ballet, but ultimately chose to become a chemical engineer.

All of the panelists admitted to noticing a lack of minority teachers and professors throughout their high school and college careers.

Dillahunt said that “having a minority professor by itself encourages students to stay in school.”

Trejo Nuñez said, “For kids growing up that makes a difference too; they think ‘well, maybe I can’t be an educator,’ even though they’d be good at it, but seeing someone in that role, that could change it.” As a Hispanic and the only computer scientist in his high school graduating class, Trejo Nuñez plans to return to his hometown to encourage students to pursue STEM fields.

Carol Frieze, the organizer of the event and director of Women@SCS, said that the number of women involved in engineering and computer science has decreased in recent years. Frieze emphasized the importance of having a diverse student body, especially in STEM. “The President [of the U.S.] says diversity makes university and education healthier for everybody,” she said.

Jose Morales, a researcher from the Software Engineering Institute who helped organize the event, said, “Just because you’re diverse, it doesn’t make you different in a weird way. You should actually celebrate who you are, your background, take pride of it, and blend it into your academic life.”

Frieze and Morales said that the event was a trial run for future events, intended to gauge turnout and interest. Morales said that this panel will emulate future events at a bigger level.

Frieze closed the celebration by emphasizing the importance of promoting diversity in STEM fields. “These are fields that, you know, have very few minorities. And that’s why we’re paying attention,” she said.