Diversity in Engineering: A Student Perspective
By: Fisayo Sangoleye, PhD Student, ECE, University of New Mexico,
and Leena Aggad, Master's Student, ME, University of New Mexico
Being culturally diverse, can you discuss some of the challenges you identify with?
Cultural diversity, although something that is necessary to create a thriving environment, presents challenges to those that wish to uphold its benefits. The challenges our organization identifies with are creating a fitting environment for all, attracting new cultures, as well as dealing with the ignorance of those not commonly immersed into culturally diverse settings.
Every different background comes with a completely unique set of cultural norms and traditions. Because of this, it is generally hard to create a setting that adheres to everyone’s culture preference. Therefore, it becomes a responsibility of organizational leadership to ensure that at least, key aspects of everyone’s culture are integrated enough to make them feel welcome. An example of this might perhaps be as simple as creating an international playlist of music to play as background noise in an event. Also, perhaps most importantly, it is critical that cultures are not distastefully represented.
As a student organization, it is not enough to rely on the same cultures to continuously support our group. Because of this, it is critical to always be progressive in recruiting new members. This is the second challenge we identify with. We must constantly attract and welcome new cultures into our organization, such that these new cultures will bring us an even greater network of cultural diversity. Leadership must incorporate cultures that are not currently present among the members of the group. Each culture hides within it gems that no other culture has. This does not mean that any culture is better than the next, but rather that each culture is unique, and that alone is what makes every single background a priceless asset to a successful working environment.
However, unfortunately there are select individuals that do not appreciate cultural diversity and prefer to remain accompanied by only those like them. These types of people decide to remain comfortable in what they know and lose out on immensely valuable opportunities that are available in culturally diverse settings. This type of environment can be a great discourage to those looking to adventure outside their own culture. The task of convincing others that ‘different’ is not ‘dangerous’ is definitely not a simple feat.
What are some of the ways by which you think these problems can be tackled?
The most encompassing and simple answer would be education. The knowledge of cultures, traditions, and international ethics is the only way to create a fully accepting environment. As any minority would attest to, the education and accurate representation of their culture is the best way to eliminate any hostile or unwelcome feelings within a setting.
As a leader of a culturally diverse group, it is my responsibility to research and educate myself on the cultures involved in my group. Through this education, I am able to see the connecting lines between these various cultures. These connections give me the opportunity to include several different cultures into one activity, with minimal complexity.
What efforts are currently being made towards improving the situation and helping people negatively impacted by cultural diversity?
As mentioned before, it is the responsibility of my group’s leadership to always ensure everyone feels welcome. However, one of the negative impacts of this is that in a “All is Welcome” environment, one might lose the feeling of uniqueness. This is not necessarily desirable because we do not want our members to cling onto people they are similar to, and lose what made them different to begin with. Too often, I see minority groups become dependent on people of the same background. A Nigerian looks frantically for an African student group. An Iraqi hunts down a Middle Eastern student group. A Brazilian seeks out a Latin American student group, and so forth. As what is only natural, we tend to gravitate towards the environments where we fit in seamlessly. However, it is much more beneficial to use the differences we have to our advantage. Standing out in a crowd is a quite powerful thing. So, rather than giving our members a group of people like them, we create a support group which teaches them to be confident and embrace their uniqueness, especially in settings which are not culturally diverse.
How do you evaluate your efforts toward tackling some of the challenges that come with cultural diversity, especially as engineers?
As engineers, it is generally desirable to look at quantitative values over qualitative ones. Our organization, although named the “National Society of Black Engineers,” has nearly 20% of our members that are not Black. This aligns with our goal to connect with people of all cultures, and all work together to lift each other up. Although people are challenged with “standing out” in a culturally diverse group, we encourage our members to always highlight what makes them different. This does not make them feel left out, but rather, makes them feel important, included and unique, which is exactly what we want.
Just as the efficiency of a machine is dependent of the efficiency of its subparts, the success of our group as a whole is the summed-up success of each of our members. Therefore, the fact that there have been over 10 internship and over 30 interview opportunities that our members have gained from internal events, regardless of their own cultural identity, goes to elevate the status of the Black community. Raising one minority will most definitely create a domino effect and will help to elevate other minorities as well.
What are some of the negative and positive impacts COVID-19 has had on your organization, academics, and career?
COVID-19 brought with it a range of challenges. Some of the setbacks it gave us included participation, concept grasp, and limitation of network. However, especially as engineers, it should be noted that not every challenge is a negative occurrence. We found the COVID-19 positively influenced us to be creative, accommodating, and perhaps create several sanitary changes that were greatly overlooked.
Although it is understood that the setbacks of COVID are temporary, the limitation to the flow of our process will set a dent in our goals for perhaps, years to come. Pre-COVID, our organization had several dozen active members who willingly gave up free time, regardless of timing and/or location of an event. In present time, the number of such flexible members is nearly zero. The location is really a defining factor on the participation turnout. Surprisingly, as accessible as online platforms, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams are, many people simply do not attend virtual events for they have experienced the unengaging atmosphere that usually comes with virtual events. Many people are hands-on learners, which is a method that is nearly impossible to execute virtually. These leads to a lack in concept grasp. In an active physical classroom setting, it is easy for one to feel engaged in the topic and remain focused. Virtually, one has a whole wide web of distraction available at hand and does not necessarily have to even pretend to be interested considering that turning on your camera somehow isn’t commonplace. Lastly, combining all these reasons together, no new connections are being made. Introducing yourself via a virtual meeting is actually a challenge, since there is usually not much dynamic conversation to break the ice. The mute button has become a classroom and professional meeting room staple.
However, not all has been a negative impact. As any issue arises, true engineering spirit is to find a solution. As with any problem-solving process, creativity and innovation are required. COVID-19 has brought out the unique interest and ideas of several of our group members. The attempt and execution of these unique solutions create an environment where feels as if their opinion is heard. Since this is an unprecedented situation, everyone is just as important to creating solutions. This makes all feel accommodated for. Furthermore, the solutions suggested to us in turn give us an idea of how we can accommodate those interests into events even post-COVID restrictions. The changes being made now are likely to remain for years to come, especially ones to do with sanitation, and general member health!
How has your organization adjusted to the situation to ensure that your organizational goals are achieved, and that people are kept actively involved?
As many other organizations have done, we have moved all our usual face-to-face communications to methods of virtual means. Meetings are held bi-weekly to update members on the occurrences and upcoming events. However, this quickly became an issue, as we noticed a significant decrease in membership participation during virtual meetings. To increase the participation quantity and quality, incentive was given out. Now, for every meeting that a member attends and actively contributes to, they will receive a participation point. The accumulation of these participation points will then competitively be used to pick several members to receive benefits such as fee cuts, free apparel, or something else appropriate of their choice.
We also want our members to remain motivated and inspired. Therefore, the leaders of our organization have made a duty upon themselves to check in on members on a more regular basis than Pre-COVID times. A simple wellness check can immensely improve the mood of someone, which will then in turn improve their quality of work and quality of life. The investment in our members is definitely something that has a high return rate on it. A 5% increase in effort from leadership can lead to a much greater increase in effort from EACH of our members. Collectively, this has the potential to efficiently reduce any productional backset of COVID-19.
How has your organization helped your immediate community and students affected by COVID-19?
Our organization immediately looked for ways to ease the suffering of our members and our community. Although volunteering opportunities were extremely limited during the beginning of the pandemic, opportunities opened up as the situation continued to develop. One of the first things we got involved with was weekly food pantries. Food was donated from larger companies, and individuals generous enough to help the cause. Furthermore, we gave out more scholarship and employment opportunities to our members. These opportunities majorly included funding to attend the largest virtual employment fair as well as professional development workshops. Finding a job even before the pandemic proved to be a difficult task. The disease leads to hiring freezes and more few employment opportunities. The virtual fair and series of workshops gave our members the training and added experience needed for them to prove to be a vital addition to several companies. Lastly, we set up educational talks for our members to learn how to take advantage of their time at home. These talks ranged from how to do your taxes, to how to invest in stocks, to how to take care of your mental health. Overall, we helped through every means that was available to us. Based on feedback from our members, it seemed to have definitely served its purpose.
Fisayo is a Ph.D. student studying Computer Engineering, and a research assistant in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of New Mexico. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from the University of Lagos, Nigeria in 2016. His main research interests include resource allocation and optimization in heterogeneous wireless networks, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and demand response management in smart grid networks using Game Theory, Contract Theory, and Reinforcement Learning techniques. He is also a member and treasurer of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).
Leena graduated Summa Cum Laude with her Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of New Mexico in 2020, and is now pursuing her Master’s degree in the same field. She works as a research assistant with a focus in combustion and fluidic instability research at UNM, and works as a Quality Engineer at Sandia National Laboratory. Her academic and work life is accompanied by a variety of leadership positions and community involvement. She holds an officer position in 4 different student organizations: Vice President of Tau Beta Pi, Treasurer and Secretary of UNM Women’s Club Soccer, President of the Muslim Student Association and lastly, her role as president of N.S.B.E (National Society of Black Engineers).