I recently read a terrific article in the latest issue of the Journal of Engineering Education (April 2007, v.96. no.2) by Cynthia E. Foor, Susan E. Walden, and Deborah A. Trytten entitled “‘I Wish that I Belonged More in this Whole Engineering Group:’ Achieving Individual Diversity.” This intriquingly titled article is the best article that I have read so far in this journal. (I’ve only been subscribed since September of last year, mind you.) It is very different from the usual engineering education articles on teaching methods, teamwork, design projects, ABET this and ABET that. It is written as a qualitative, narrative, ethnographic look at the experience of one minority female undergraduate in an engineering program. It touches upon cultural theory, particularly Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas of capital (cultural, social, economic, and symbolic benefits that accrue from being part of a particular dominant social class).
The article centers around the experiences of Inez (not her real name), a female engineering undergraduate, and her struggles to complete an engineering degree despite not having an innate sense of how to “play the game.” This leads her to miss out on co-op opportunities because she feels her low GPA and need to earn money would preclude her from doing them. One of her instructors tries to encourage her to leave engineering; others are inflexible about allowing her to meet with them other than during their scheduled office hours, forcing her to choose between a job and additional assistance. The struggles she goes through are quite amazing, but what is more amazing is her determination to make it through despite all these (and more) obstacles. She is quite heroic!
This article is a very rich read – it gives a view of the engineering undergraduate experience that is more human, more nuanced than one usually sees in the JEE. I hits me very personally because Inez’s experiences mirror my own as a first-generation college student in my family. I went to Cornell University as a plant biology major in the mid-1980’s. I had to work several jobs to earn not only my work-study money but also my parental contribution, because my parents refused to help me pay for my education. I had no AP credits to my name, as we did not really have AP courses in my high school. I found my introductory chemistry (CHEM 207-208) and biology courses so extremely difficult that I quickly became discouraged about my abilities in science (despite having been the valedictorian of my high school class). I continually sold myself short, choosing mainly dining hall jobs and custodial jobs because I had no idea I could do better. My grades suffered, which caused me to lose further confidence in myself. I felt outside the whole collegiate experience, spending most of my free time working to earn money. I had little time to do much studying beyond just getting through my homework. A number of my friends either did not have to work (my roommate spent his free time on the Cornell crew team) or worked in labs or had other prestigious opportunities. I felt as if I was sliding down a slippery slope and could not gain traction. I had lost all faith in myself as a science major by the time I graduated in 1989. I remember clearly being so ashamed of myself on graduation day that I avoided my faculty advisor all that day, despite his repeated attempts to meet me and my parents. I was crushed. I did not even have Inez’s courage and determination.
It took me until this Spring (18 years later) to take another science course – Geology. Of course, I’m a very different person now than I was then…
Anyway, find and read this article (you’ll probably need to ask a colleague or interlibrary loan it) for a look into the heart of a real terrific future engineer. As the authors stress, people like Inez, who come from underrepresented, economically disadvantaged minorities, bring other strengths and creativities to the engineering process, an individual diversity that would vastly enrich and improve the engineering profession.