Clearing hurdles: SHPE program propels future leaders in engineering

In Engineering Education, NewsBy Samantha Jones

A delegation from the UF Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) program visited the White House in May 2023.

A delegation from the UF Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) program visited the White House in May 2023.Science, technology, engineering, math, family. It’s not often one will see these words grouped together, but when the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) program visited the White House to pitch their purpose and achievements, they brought the whole familia in tow; with the intention of engaging with top leadership in their mission to overcome barriers and biases on behalf of Hispanic engineering students and professionals.

SHPE, including delegates from UF SHPE, was granted an unprecedented three-hour briefing on “Building the Next Generation of Hispanic Leaders in STEM” with officials at the White House. The discussion revolved around how academia, the private sector, and government can increase Hispanic representation in the tech ecosystem by lowering education and career barriers for Hispanic students and professional engineers.

“In line with our new strategic plan, this prestigious event is a significant step towards achieving our goal of being a key voice in Washington, D.C. with deep reach and a reputation as the leading organization for Hispanics in STEM,” said Miguel Alemañy, interim SHPE CEO. “The entire familia should be proud to see SHPE with a seat at this table.”

The briefing was organized into three conversations: K-12, Gender Equity, and Workforce Pathways. An underlying theme across the discourse was involvement of the entire family in every student’s success, a role that SHPE fills in its mission by embracing and including family in a similar way that Hispanic culture centers family. While all students benefit from the support of family to be successful in a field as demanding as engineering, Hispanic students often face a complex web of barriers in their pursuit of STEM education- language barriers, immigration issues, and overcoming stereotypes. Navigating these obstacles requires a unique blend of resilience, creativity, and determination, which are qualities that bolster and galvanize all engineering professionals.

A delegation from the UF Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) program visited the White House in May 2023.

Like the proverbial village that works together to raise their progeny, the UF SHPE program fosters a community-based approach to supporting Hispanic students in all aspects of their academic journey. The program offers guidance on enrollment processes, curriculum advisement, and career support services, and also has wellness programs, social events, and support with researching grants, scholarships, and internships.

This support begins in a child’s elementary years, where the SHPE program Equipando Padres, “equipping parents” welcomes and involves parents and provides resources like lab kits and equipment for introducing their children to STEM. Information on career and education choices, scholarships and financial opportunities are shared in the family’s native language. By inspiring the family’s mindset that their children can pursue education in a science-based field, and that their everyday problem solving, creativity and curiosity are already building blocks of engineering thinking, SHPE opens up potential for communities by instilling a sense of belonging in a field that typically lacks Hispanic representation. There is a significant Hispanic population in America, and there is potential for engineering excellence in that pool.

Isabella Victoria, a Marketing Event Director for UF SHPE speaks to the impact SHPE has had on her college experience: “I am a first-generation student, I am from Columbia, my parents are not engineers. They did not know how to guide me to college, how to do a FAFSA, so it was hard for me to learn going into my first year of college, I had to learn a lot, and be resourceful about where I was going to get scholarships, where I was going to find opportunities. I can now pass that on to other people so that they can have a better experience, with more information. We are uplifting the next generation of engineers and providing more opportunities.”

UF SHPE advocates for lifelong learning, and support of young families. Through gender equality efforts and conversations around practical approaches to the hurdles of reentry into academia, the organization supports the engineering profession by including people who have nonconventional academic trajectories, like students who take time away from matriculation to care for children.

The delegation from SHPE at the White House included Hispanic students and young professionals including Efren Lopez, a junior in UF Engineering’s CISE department, who was nominated by SHPE to attend the White House briefing; “I have been an active member of SHPE for two years. As a first-generation student and a parent, I have faced numerous challenges, but I have also learned the value of perseverance and hard work. I want to serve as an example to others who may face similar obstacles, demonstrating that it is possible to thrive in the STEM field, regardless of one’s background. I am passionate about promoting diversity and inclusivity within the industry and using my experiences to inspire change and create more opportunities for underrepresented groups.”

Also invited to speak at the White House were faculty, industry leaders, and parents of SHPE students, like Juan Antonio Garcia, whose story was witnessed by the only Latina faculty attendee on this White House event, Idalis Villanueva Alarcón, PhD, UF Engineering Education Associate Chair for Research & Graduate Studies, Associate Professor, and planning committee member for the national SHPE Faculty Development symposium. She shared, “Among the 50 people that we had, there was one family of four, and the father was invited to speak on behalf of the family. What he shared was, ‘I am a truck driver. I didn’t study, didn’t go to college. My dream is that my children will have enough education to become whatever they want to become, and if that’s engineering then that is the end goal. I had never seen an engineer before in my life, but being surrounded by all the engineers in this audience, and seeing how welcoming they are, I now have a sense of hope for my children, that they can become engineers, but even hope for myself, that I could become an engineer.’”

This was a message that inspired current graduate students in Dr. Villanueva Alarcón’s lab; Gadhaun Aslam, Edwin Marte Zorrilla and Naqash Gerard, who although not all are of Hispanic descent, can resonate with the issues and stories shared by her attendance to the White House on April 18, 2023.

Dr. Villanueva Alarcón summed up the mission of the SHPE White House briefing powerfully; “We want to be known. We are here, we are serving the community; we have a lot to offer. Sometimes we are not given that space to show what we have to offer… When we open up these opportunities, whether educational or professional, it helps everyone- it helps the economy; it helps the United States to progress further in innovation. We can all together contribute to the growth of this nation.”