Honoring the Amazing Young Women of the FREE Program

March 9, 2014

by Margaret Eisenhart and Erin Allaman

In January, School of Education faculty and students gathered at the Koenig Alumni Center to celebrate young women who participated in “Female Recruits Explore Engineering” (FREE), an after-school program and research project I directed with former doctoral students Terra Morris (Education), Daria Kotys-Schwartz (Mechanical Engineering), Chandra Turpen (Physics), Julia Kantor (Education), and Rachel Prosser Kachchaf (Education). Despite intimidating obstacles, they have persevered to become amazing young women. Some have completed college, others have almost finished, and all have considered various careers they otherwise may not have.

We developed FREE for high-achieving girls of color at three Denver-area high schools. Our goal was to spark interest in engineering among girls who would be in the first-generation of their family to attend college. The girls represented the “untapped pool”--prepared to go into engineering but not planning to do so. Drawing on FREE’s hands-on demonstrations, workplace visits, and use of online resources during 2006-09, 50 girls developed their own engineering projects, came to know practicing engineers, and seriously considered engineering as a career choice. We hoped that some would go to college in engineering.  Five did; almost half of the others chose science majors.

For research purposes, we were most interested in how the girls came to think about engineering and how it fit (or not) into the context of their lives.  We learned that given precarious economic circumstances, lack of familiarity with college, dependence on financial aid, and legal barriers for undocumented students, engineering was generally perceived as too risky to pursue in college. Nonetheless, these young women’s determination to succeed is truly inspiring.

Patricia emigrated with her family from México and is the first in her family to graduate from high school and go to college. She was a strong math and science student in high school. Interested in medicine and engineering, she applied to five four-year colleges and was accepted at all.  But due to her immigration and economic status, Pati’s only option was to enroll in the Community College of Aurora, where she earned an A.S. in Science.  After waiting ten years for the DREAM Act, which never passed, the 2013 Colorado ASSET bill finally enabled her to enroll at Metropolitan State for a B.S in Biology. She hopes to earn her degree in two years and then pursue a career in pediatrics.

As a young child, Qua emigrated with her family from Vietnam. She was the valedictorian of her high school class. With a full scholarship, she attended Colorado College and graduated with a degree in Chemistry. Qua is currently working and hoping to begin graduate school in Public Health with a concentration in epidemiology.

Ruby, also Latina, graduated at the top her high school class and was involved in a long list of community service and extracurricular activities.  She also became a mother in high school. Ruby credited her son with inspiring her to complete her college degree. With her son in tow, she became a Gates Millennial Scholar and a Greenhouse Scholar.  She graduated in 2013 from the University of Denver with a B.A. in English Literature and Spanish.  She is concurrently working on a Master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction and earning teacher licensure at the University of Denver. She hopes to become a Spanish teacher in the Denver Public Schools after completing her degree in August 2014.

Despite their successes, these young women are still struggling to realize their educational dreams. They have lived at home to save money, interrupted school to earn money, and gone without supplies and other resources that other college students might take for granted. 

In recognition of all that we learned from the FREE participants, we have established a website for donations to help them as they finish school. Visit www.freepathways.org to learn more about Patricia, Qua, Ruby, and others like them and to contribute if you are able.

Margaret Eisenhart