U.Va. Hispanic Engineering Group Growing, Diversifying University Community

December 01, 2008

December 1, 2008 — Diversifying the face of engineering — along with that of the University community — is one goal of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers at the University of Virginia.

But the student organization also is working to promote the study of science and engineering among younger generations through a high school outreach program.

For its efforts, the U.Va. chapter of the society was recognized as the best small chapter in the country at this year's national conference, held Nov. 12-16 in Phoenix. Also, the group's president, Peter Rios, a fourth-year biomedical engineering major, was one of two students in the nation honored as an outstanding future leader.

Carolyn Vallas, director of the U.Va. Center for Diversity in Engineering, said the group stands out for promoting diversity in science and technology.

"The group is reaching out to youth who will soon become some of our next top students," she said.

In the past year, the chapter has doubled its size to 30 members and this fall garnered a $7,000 grant from the national organization to enhance its high school outreach program,  Juntos Podemos (Together We Can). In the spring, members will host the organization's Regional Leadership Development Conference, which will draw 300 members from more than 45 colleges and universities across the United States and Puerto Rico.

"Our group is helping to bring a diversity of thought, passion and leadership to the University," Rios said. "I have a sense that many of our new members will be leaders in the University and eventually in their career fields."

While the group's name may suggest that it represents only Hispanic engineering students, Rios said that it is open to, and has members from, a variety of ethnic groups and majors.

"Everyone is welcome in the group," he said. "In addition to our Hispanic members, we have African American and white students and students from other parts of the University, such as biology, psychology and economics."

Paralleling the group's growth, Juntos Podemos has steadily grown since its inception in 1999, expanding from just 15 students to now almost 100 accepted applicants. The cost-free program serves as an important introduction to engineering and higher education for Northern Virginia high school students.

"A lot of these students have never been exposed to college life, let alone engineering," Rios said.

From the moment the high school students step off chartered buses, they are immersed in the life of engineering students at U.Va. In one action-packed weekend, they meet with University leaders, talk with minority professors and conduct hands-on engineering projects. In years past, they have worked on miniature hurricane-proof houses and participated in robotics competitions.

The Juntos Podemos program is timed to coincide with the annual Engineering Open House, so students can learn about the disciplines offered in the school's nine departments by visiting with faculty who open their research labs and set up displays to illustrate their fields. The 2009 open house will be Feb. 21.

To round out the heavy academics-based schedule, students are also exposed to social activities such as karate, salsa and belly dancing.

The group's recent grant will improve its offerings for students who attend the weekend program. Rios plans to use some of the money for top-of-the-line engineering kits to build miniature solar cars.

Rios estimates four current society members started as students visiting U.Va. through Juntos Podemos.

He recalled a young Peruvian woman who is now majoring in biology at U.Va.

"She told me, 'I came from Peru four years ago and I just got my citizenship here. I knew nothing about U.Va. and I didn't know what opportunities the school had to offer. I completed this program and it really got me excited about college life and about the potential that I had to succeed.'"

Just one of the success stories from U.Va.'s chapter of the Society of Professional Hispanic Engineers.