SF State program recruits minority students to science, math, engineering fields

Jasmine Williams walks through the halls of SF State’s Science building picking flecks of styrofoam from her sweatshirt. The 23-year-old civil engineering student is in the midst of completing a senior project that involves constructing a canoe made out of cement, which will be entered into a race against other universities.

“My mom thought my wanting to study engineering was a perfect fit,” said Williams. “I was the kid who always skipped the novel section and went straight to the how-to section instead at the library.”

As a black woman, Williams—along with black men, Latinos and women of any ethnicity—is a minority in the engineering field, according to data compiled in 2008 by the National Science Foundation. While she was supported by her family to pursue a career in science, she knows this is not always the case with other students from similar backgrounds.

For these reasons, Williams and many of her cohorts have joined the Math Engineering Science Achievement program at SF State, which aims to recruit more underrepresented students into university science fields and provide academic tools to help them succeed.

“If they’re like me, they may come from an area where they don’t see people like them working in science, technology, engineering or math. Or they might go to a school that lacks the funds for things like science fairs,” Williams said.

The latter was the case for Luis Bill, who attended  public school in Panama before coming to the United States in 2006.

“Those kinds of opportunities were only in the after school programs of private schools,” said Bill, who majors in electrical engineering.

Throughout the years, the MESA program at SF State has been steadfast in its participation in Bay Area outreach programs.

According to Bill, MESA hosted a robotics competition at Horace Mann Middle School in the Mission District in May 2011. Williams added that last semester, the National Society of Black Engineers (an organization funded by MESA) helped tutor in math and science at San Francisco’s Inner City Youth after school program. MESA also coordinates with on-campus organizations like Project Connect and the Educational Opportunity Program to act as tour guides to visiting high school students.

And, according to Daniel Catalan, electrical engineering senior and member of MESA-backed Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, MESA will make weekly trips to Horace Mann to help students construct robots made out of Legos.

“We want to give them something to look forward to when they go to college,” said Catalan.

These outreach programs are generally well-received, according to Williams.

“Once, we worked with Project Connect and helped high school students make bridges out of gumdrops and toothpicks. I remember one of the girls saying, ‘This is so much fun! I want to be an engineer!’”

Youth outreach is but one component of MESA, according to program director Nilgun Ozer. Following acceptance into the program, students receive a variety of services.

“We offer free tutoring (and) academic excellence workshops in which professors provide specialized training and scholarships that only MESA students can apply for.”

MESA scholarships, in fact, have helped Williams realize her engineering dreams.

“Through MESA I’ve had numerous job interviews and offers, I’ve become more articulate and I receive all of my books through MEP-related stipends,” Williams said. She has already been offered a job at Jacobs Engineering, which she plans to take after graduating this spring.

Ozer notes the role of city-wide involvement in the success of underprivileged youth in their scientific pursuits.

“Community awareness, especially towards people coming from economically disadvantaged groups, is important,” she said.

For Bill, the motivation comes from the need to overturn the status quo.

“Now that I have the tools to do so, this is the best way for me to help kids who may lack support (in the sciences),” he said. “It’s kind of like being a rebel, like saying to them, ‘You don’t have to go to a private school. If I can do it, you can do it, too.’”

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