Published: Oct. 5, 2021 By

Whether it is in a business, lab or classroom, conversations that recognize a lack of diversity are necessary in spaces where certain groups are underrepresented. It can be difficult to initiate that dialogue, especially if you do not see yourself in your peers.

This is a sentiment that various underrepresented individuals within STEM can share, which is why a group of graduate students in the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering created a space where students from a variety of backgrounds can be seen and heard.

The Committee for Equity in Mechanical Engineering (CEME) was established in summer 2020 to improve the ME graduate student experience. The group works to support underserved students by providing a community where people can talk openly about ways to increase diversity in the department and in the STEM workforce.

CEME members have spent the past year building their organization with social events on campus, visiting K-12 schools to connect with the younger generation and hosting diverse speakers to hear their unique perspectives on engineering.

With the progress and success of those initiatives, the group is now putting out a call to action. CEME wants to expand its outreach in the 2021-22 academic year and needs help to do it. The only qualification – a willingness to be open.

A Necessary Dialogue

One of CEME’s goals is to cultivate understanding, and that starts with talking. The group of graduate students has created an environment where their peers can have a dialogue about what it means to be underrepresented individuals within STEM.

“We want to push that while we might not look like engineers, we are engineers,” CEME member and PhD student Vani Sundaram said. “We come from various backgrounds, whether it be traditional or nontraditional.”

CEME aims for the conversations to be open and nonjudgmental – the members celebrate culture and highlight their differences. The trusted relationships the students have built within the group and department allow them to work through disagreements, knowing that their opinion will be met with a respectful response.

“We are not trying to make anyone into a bogeyman or devil,” Trujillo said. “If someone has a religious belief that tells them gay marriage is wrong, they still have a place at CEME as long as they are willing to engage in meaningful and respectful conversation with those of us who support it.”

Their dialogue also focuses on improving recruitment and retention methods within the ME department. CEME members believe that you can only have a diverse department when you have an equitable department.

Equity starts by opening pathways for underrepresented students to join ME. CEME advocates for underserved students to have the same opportunities and same chance at being successful.

“We want people to remember that we exist, and we are all contributors to society and science,” said Jaylene Martinez, another CEME member and PhD student.

A Network of Support

The open dialogue CEME promotes has helped the group build a community where students can feel safe talking about their challenges.

Some of the members explained they have experienced feelings of isolation while pursuing their engineering degree. Others said they have been forced to sit through situations that make them uncomfortable. CEME provides a place where students’ feelings can be validated.

“When a peer says ‘I felt this microaggression,’ I can say that I have felt that too, I can relate,” said CEME member and PhD student Skyler Kern. “I can say it is an unfair situation and you are not crazy for recognizing it. Sometimes, getting that validation is all it takes to feel better. It helps knowing that the discrimination I felt is not in my own head – that it was an action done to me. I can move on a bit more than I could before, because I know there is nothing wrong with me for feeling that way.”

The members of CEME want their peers to know that they are not alone in their struggles and that having a network is crucial to underrepresented student success. The CEME network provides the encouragement students need to succeed academically and the support to care for their mental health.

“We wanted to create CEME so people like us can come to each other if they are having a bad day,” said Martinez. “If someone feels like they cannot be alone, CEME has built a community so that they never have to be.”

A Culture of Service

The broader strategy of CEME is to create a culture of service in the engineering field. As engineers continue to find solutions to humanity’s problems, CEME members want to amplify that humanity aspect.

Since CEME was founded, its members have advocated for those values in the ME department. They hope the culture of service will trickle down into classrooms and labs, where students can participate.

“Service is something that is particularly crucial for minority students when they are pursuing these degrees,” said Kern. “They feel much more fulfilled if they have that service component.”

Read more about the different service events that CEME hosts and participates in below.