Society of Hispanic Engineers Wins Top National Award

March 4, 2010 — The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers at the University of Virginia received several awards at their annual national conference in Washington, D.C.

The organization was recognized as the most outstanding chapter in the nation. Earlier, it was named the region's most outstanding chapter for the second straight year.

The U.Va. chapter was honored in the "medium" chapter category – a step up from the "small" chapter category they qualified for last year. This shift reflects the organization's growth in membership over the last few years. In 2007, the group had 15 members. It doubled in size to 30 the following year, added four members in 2009 and now aims to reach 40 by the end of this academic year.

In addition to the chapter's honors, two U.Va. members, Joshua Arenas, professional/leadership development chair, and Cynthia Zahrah, team captain for the chapter's design team, were chosen to participate in the 2009 Advancing Hispanic Excellence in Technology, Engineering, Math and Science Design Competition. They competed against nine other finalists selected by a team of professional engineers from industrial, academic and governmental sectors, and earned second place and a cash prize.

The competition aims to test the students' technical and business intellect in the fabrication of cost-effective products that improve the quality of life not only for the Hispanic community, but for all citizens.

Arenas and Zahrah researched, designed, built and tested a marketable device to aid in the rehabilitation of pediatric patients with muscular dystrophy.

The device is one they created during their Introduction to Engineering course with Bradford C. Bennett, an assistant professor of research in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery with a joint appoint in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. It allows patients to exercise their muscles, which has the effect of slowing the disease's progression, minimizing time spent with a physical therapist and decreasing medical bills.

Beyond competitions and awards, this conference provided an opportunity for society members to gain valuable professional and leadership skills while networking with their peers and professional engineers.

"Our organization offers opportunities for members to grow within the University community," said fourth-year student Antonio Perez, U.Va.'s chapter president. "For first-years specifically, we offer academic mentoring sessions, study groups and professional development guidance. Additionally, what might be most valuable to all of our members is the sense of community that is gained from joining the group."

Also at the conference, the group received a $4,000 grant to support its high school outreach program, Juntos Podemos ( "Together We Can"). The program brings high school students from Northern Virginia – and this year for the first time, from Charlottesville – to the University for a weekend program that introduces them to science and engineering, and to college life at U.Va.

"This program is really focused on getting these students interested in attending a four-year university, particularly to study engineering," Perez said. "Many of these students will be the first generation from their families to attend college, and thus will have limited exposure to college life."

Additionally, the organization last spring hosted the society's regional conference, which brought together 170 Hispanic college student leaders, 15 professionals, and 10 high school students from along the East Coast and Puerto Rico. The conference featured a team project in which the U.Va. chapter taught leaders of other chapters how to build youth outreach programs similar to Juntos Podemos.

"The SHPE chapter at U.Va. does a great job of continually growing and maintaining a strong presence in the Engineering School and at the University as a whole," said Carolyn Vallas, the chapter's faculty adviser and director of the Center for Diversity in Engineering. "Organizations like this are essential to promoting diversity within our current communities and encouraging diversity for the future engineering workforce."

To learn more about SHPE, visit here.

— By Kathryn Welsh