Ohio State student Alessandra Bliss has found her place as a part of the university's STEM community.
Choosing The Ohio State University was the best decision Alessandra Bliss said she could have made.
The senior biochemistry major from Shaker Heights wanted to play lacrosse, join a sorority, study abroad and intern at a prestigious hospital while at college. At Ohio State she discovered all of those things. She also has been able to connect to the support, encouragement and resources she needed to succeed as an African American/Latina student in a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) field.
That pathway began before Bliss had her first class at Ohio State. The university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion reached out to her about the scholarships and programs available, setting the tone for the supportive environment she’d experience once she got to campus.
“I have had incredible opportunities at this university,” she said.
Ohio State has established a fundamental understanding of how diversity — of people, ideas and experiences — can improve the overall quality of education in STEM fields. With this knowledge in mind, it has worked to recruit and retain a more diverse student and faculty population in STEM areas.
The contributions of diverse women in STEM has recently been highlighted in the film Hidden Figures, which is nominated for best picture at this weekend’s Academy Awards. The film sheds light on the stories of African American women mathematicians at NASA who helped launch the Mercury space flights. The movie’s theme has resonated on Ohio State’s campus.
“There’s not always a movie about the students we work with, but I tell you, if you look back at the alumnae of the Women in Engineering (WiE) and Minority Engineering Program (MEP), we have those three women and then some,” said Olga Stavridis, assistant director of WiE at Ohio State.
“It’s inspiring for the work we do and the continued need for support of these programs.”
An engaged culture
Today, it is much more common to find women of color majoring in STEM fields at Ohio State than it was during the Hidden Figures era. But while there has been growth and progress, the university is engaging in a number of efforts to accelerate the progress in the coming years.
These efforts include a broad range of academic programs including WiE and MEP, and a rich collection of student organizations such as the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Society of Women Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. These programs connect students with peers and mentors who can help better illuminate the path forward.
Lisa Barclay, senior director of diversity and outreach for the College of Engineering, said this support system is critical for engaging students at the earliest stages of their college careers, sometimes even sooner.
“We have everything from one-day events with elementary school students to full one-week camps for middle and high school students on campus and working with Ohio State students,” Barclay said. “I’d say that’s our biggest effort in engaging students early in terms of considering a career in STEM.”
That student engagement comes with engaging stories.
Damonique Thomas, a fifth-year computer science and engineering major from Massillon, is one student who has had a number of successes during her career at Ohio State. Last summer she interned as a software engineer at Target, helping develop an internal web application that the company projects to save $40 million. She’s currently an intern at Penji, which has produced a mobile app that connects students and tutors for one-on-one learning sessions.
Thomas said she’s realized these opportunities in part because of the sense of community fostered in NSBE and MIP. She also cites the influence of PREFACE, a bridge program that is part of Ohio State’s MEP for underrepresented minorities in engineering, which she attended before her freshman year. There she met both role models and best friends who helped prepare her for the college road ahead.
“It makes me feel better about myself and more confident,” Thomas said. “Being able to see other people who are like me gives me extra confidence to let my skills show what I can do instead of my skin color or gender.”
Added public health and environmental science major, MiChaela Barker: “Representation is important. It’s encouraging to see a diversity of students in my classes. There are things we can talk about that don’t necessarily affect others.”
Creating systemic change
When you have role models or peers who look like you, it adds another level of support to something that’s already challenging, said Monica Cox, chair of the Department of Engineering Education. Cox knows firsthand what this is all about and was the first African American female department chair in the College of Engineering at Ohio State. This trailblazer status is something she’s cognizant of and that informs her daily work with students who will comprise next-generation women of color in STEM.
But with this in mind, Cox said there’s no formula for being a “pioneer” or engaging with students who may one day be the first and only in the field. For her part, she said she just acts as a role model in the present, so students see a diverse representation in STEM every day.
“We need to embrace people who represent diversity in multiple ways,” Cox said. “We shouldn’t use our experiences or lack of experiences to prevent us from making an important discovery. Innovation often stems from diversity.”
“We need to embrace people who represent diversity in multiple ways. We shouldn’t use our experiences or lack of experiences to prevent us from making an important discovery. Innovation often stems from diversity.”
Since Ohio State started its Minority in Engineering program 40 years ago, it’s had nearly 2,000 graduates, said Donnie Perkins, chief diversity officer for the College of Engineering. Graduates of the program remain engaged with the university and provide the beginnings of an Ohio State professional network, another important part of the overall equation.
“The question of capability and talent has been answered again and again over the last 40 years, so the question now is what as one of the nation’s most comprehensive universities can we do to further attract and cultivate diversity and talent,” he said. “To graduate a more diverse student body, including women, and do this in a way that generates more diverse faculty in classrooms, more researchers and, of course, make a major contribution to the workforce in our country.
“Our focus is on creating the means, mechanism and environments to make all of that happen in the best way possible while at the same time creating value for all participants in the college.”
The college-wide effort includes the graduate level, where the College of Engineering is working to attract more underrepresented minority students and women to its programs, said Dr. La’Tonia Stiner-Jones, assistant dean of graduate programs.
The number of applications from diverse students has increased by 87 percent since 2013, Stiner-Jones said. Over the same time, enrollment of underrepresented students has increased by 17 percent.
“We want the representation at the graduate and undergraduate level to reflect the society that we live in,” Stiner-Jones said. “It’s important to make sure we’re providing a very diverse environment for our students to train in because they’re going into a global marketplace. We want them to be prepared to work with individuals who are from backgrounds and cultures unlike their own.”
The Discovery Scholars Fellowship Program, launched in 2016, is one more way Ohio State is aiming to increase the diversity of the graduate student body. The program provides funding for students admitted from the GEM National Consortium database to the Colleges of Engineering or Arts and Sciences' MS and PhD programs and provides a monthly stipend, tuition, fees and health insurance.
A benefit for all
As the university continues its efforts to advance diversity and inclusion in STEM majors, the efforts serve to educate all students, faculty and staff about the meaning and purpose of diversity.
“When you educate one student, you have the potential of educating all students,” Perkins said. “You create an environment of trust and learning that really serves all students very well.”
Bliss experiences firsthand how the benefits of a more diverse classroom better reflect the world that students are going to enter when they graduate from Ohio State.
“I appreciate that I get to work with and study with students from all types of backgrounds including race, ethnicity, religion, ability, sexuality and more,” she said.
“STEM is a collaborative field and after graduation many students will pursue careers in research, medicine and even educating the future students of STEM. Having the ability to work with students of all backgrounds now is an invaluable experience that prepares us to be citizens of a diverse workforce.”
Bliss is carrying on a tradition of a program that the women featured in Hidden Figures played an important role in advancing. She stands on their shoulders, just as they stood on the shoulders of women who came before them.
Someday soon, she’ll be the one lending a helping hand to the next generation.