Pursuing a science degree is never easy. For minorities, generally, it is even tougher, as cultural differences and the dearth of role models present obstacles that non-minority scientists don't face.
Rather than face those obstacles in isolation, Diana Gomez sought out organizations that could help her maneuver around them. One of the organizations she found was especially helpful: the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers  (SHPE). "I am now a better manager, [and a] better leader than I could have ever imagined if it wasn't for all the training and resources I got from the organization," says Gomez. Now, as the president of SHPE, she hopes to give back to the community that helped her.
Although the organization was founded by professionals in 1974, SHPE includes a strong and growing student contingent; the number of student chapters has grown from 2 to 200 since SHPE was founded. As a result of this increased student enrollment, SHPE recently opened an office at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) that is dedicated solely to its student programs. The SHPE Education Office is led by student program manager Rafaela Schwan. "It is great to still be in the education area while promoting science and math among Latinos," says Schwan.
Funding Undergraduate Education
SHPE was founded in Los Angeles by a group of Hispanic engineers who wanted to serve as role models for the Latino community. Since then, SHPE has offered scholarships as well as student programs that enable students to reach out to K-12 schools, attend conferences, network, and enter professional competitions.
Through SHPE, between a quarter and half a million dollars in scholarship money is awarded each year to undergraduate and graduate students. Undergraduates can receive up to $2000 and graduate students up to $3000. These scholarships are available to Hispanic students majoring in physical sciences, mathematics, or technology.
Although any Hispanic science student can apply for a scholarship, the successful applications, notes Schwan, are the ones with strong personal statements. "If they are first-generation students [who] overcame obstacles to get into universities, or are working to put themselves through school, those things stand out," she says. Strong academics and community involvement are also appreciated by the selection committee.
If the letters Gomez receives from scholarship recipients are any indication, the SHPE scholarships are making a real difference in people's lives. "The one thing that I think I treasure the most is the letters that we receive from the students that get the scholarships," says Gomez, who estimates that she receives at least 100 letters each year. "The things we hear are like ‘I was almost going to drop out of school. My parents couldn't afford the bills and now I can pay for the books' or ‘I am a single parent and this scholarship will help me continue,' and it's touching to know we are making a positive impact." More than 90% of scholarship recipients have earned degrees in science and mathematics.
Reaching Out and Mentoring
SHPE's career-development programs emphasize mentorship and aim to assist members of Hispanic communities as they seek education and professional experience in engineering. Having students and professionals serve as mentors, they reason, assists younger students and professionals while also enhancing the mentors' own leadership and academic skills.
With the goal of encouraging college students to mentor at high schools, the Advancing Careers in Engineering (ACE) Mini-Grant program funds innovative activities that increase participation of youth preparing to enter engineering and science-related careers. Grants have ranged from $200 to $10,000. Luis Mendoza-Natividad, SHPE's vice-national student representative, believes ACE reaches out to students at very critical points in their life. There is often a lack of emphasis on higher education in the Hispanic culture, he says, explaining that there is pressure for children to start working immediately. "Many [Hispanics] don't have the finances to easily coast through college."
Through community outreach, however, he has helped show students that although the process may be difficult, it is not impossible. "Every now and then, there's a kid that's always been told going to college is not an option," says Mendoza, "but we try to show everyone that they can go to college by serving as role models and helping them understand the financial aid process."
Other ACE activities have included bringing K-12 students to the universities to talk about the application process and college life. One college organized overnight stays for high school students. Tutoring programs for math and science and presentations to schools about careers in the sciences have also been funded.
This year, SHPE partnered with two organizations to become new participants in a science bowl and a robotics competition. A high school SHPE team (mentored by SHPE college students) will be competing at The National Science Bowl Competition, a fast-paced competition that uses the "Jeopardy style" of questions and answers format. The collaborative efforts with the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition now has college students and professional engineers coaching student teams as they design, build, and test their robots. "We're hoping that the students will get that interest or excitement about engineering and science and will pursue those fields," Schwan says.
Through SHPE, students are given the opportunity to both interact with and work with professionals in the field. Club meetings and conferences allow members to make connections, and internships give students the opportunity to obtain hands-on work experience.
SHPE recently launched their student internship program with the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, allowing seven students to do research with NASA engineers this past summer. Projects ranged from testing fluid dynamics to researching space flight hardware in structural and environmental testing facilities. "[Internships are] really beneficial because more and more, students are required to have experience in their field when looking for a job, and an internship opportunity or a co-op opportunity is the best way to get it," Schwan emphasizes.
Invited speakers at club meetings give students the opportunity to interact with those in the field to learn more about work experiences, acing job interviews, negotiating salaries, and dinner etiquette. For example, Mendoza shared one of the secrets he learned from Hector Cavaroz, a senior engineer at Chevron who spoke at a meeting: "If you put your index finger up and curl the rest of your fingers to your thumb, on your left hand, you'll form a 'b.' On the right hand, you form a ‘d.' That's to remember that your bread goes on the right of your drink." Like many other speakers, Cavaroz has continued to keep in touch with SHPE members and has become a mentor to many, says Mendoza.
The officers of SHPE's student chapters attend the National Leadership Institute, a 3-day intensive leadership conference that teaches participants problem solving skills, time management, and networking techniques. Through SHPE's conferences, Mendoza landed a job to do engineering work with semi-conductors at Applied Materials. Anita Ramirez, national student representative of SHPE, also landed jobs through networking with the organization.
Ramirez's advice to members is to "get involved as much as possible--the benefits are only for those who get involved. [The program] gives you an amazing network and helps [to] strengthen your technical and career skills."
Cathy Tran is a freelance writer and may be reached at email@example.com .