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Charting the Course: The Impact and Implications of Mentoring Experiences of Female Faculty in a HBCU College of Engineering

 

November 16-17, 2007
Johnson C. Smith University
Charlotte, North Carolina

Felecia M. Nave, College of Engineering, Prairie View A&M University

Suxia Cui, College of Engineering, Prairie View A&M University

Pamela Obiomon, College of Engineering, Prairie View A&M University

Sherri S. Frizell, College of Engineering, Prairie View A&M University

Judy Perkins, College of Engineering, Prairie View A&M University


 

Abstract
Recruitment and retention of female faculty in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines continues to plague American colleges and universities.  In 2004 and 2005, women earned approximately 50% of the PhDs awarded in the STEM disciplines, yet they represented only 14% of the STEM faculty with even lower percentages for engineering and technology [1]. Although women make up more than half of the undergraduates enrolled in US institutions, they make up only 18% of the students enrolled in undergraduate engineering programs [2].  However, increasing the presence of women faculty in engineering schools is essential to encouraging the persistence of undergraduate and graduate students in the engineering and technology pipeline. 

During the 2003 to 2004 period, Prairie View A & M University (PVAMU), a historically black college and university (HBCU), embarked on a new era by hiring five female faculty members in the College of Engineering (COE). This was a first for many of the departments. While there is no formal mentoring program at the college or university level, this paper presents an overview of the mentoring experiences of the COE female faculty, its impact on their professional growth and development, as well as strategies employed by each in order to navigate their academic careers.
 

Introduction
PVAMU is the second oldest public institution of higher education in the state of Texas. It is a primarily undergraduate institution with growing graduate programs. The COE consists of six departments offering Bachelor of Science (BS), Master of Science (MS), and Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) degrees. These programs are accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). The COE consistently ranks among the top 10 U.S. universities producing African American (AA) engineering graduates and the top 15 U.S. universities producing AA female engineers. Also, the COE undergraduate female enrollment averages 24% and the female faculty represent 11% of the entire tenured/tenured track faculty.  Of the 11% (6 female faculties), two are tenured and four are tenured track.  Four were hired at the Assistant Professor rank and one at Professor/Department Head, collectively representing five of the six departments in the COE.  The tenured Department Head hire and three of the tenure-track Assistant Professor hires was the first ever female employed in their respective Departments. With regards to ethnicity, four are African American and one is Asian-American.
 

Faculty Experiences, Career Advancement, and Strategies Employed
The focus of this section is to present an overview of each female faculty mentoring experiences while at the university, and the impact and implications on their career advancement, and some of the strategies used in the absence of a formal mentoring program.

Faculty Member #1
Faculty Member #1 has a BS degree in Chemistry, a MS and PhD degrees in Chemical Engineering. She joined the Department of Chemical Engineering as a tenure-track Assistant Professor. While her professional path has been guided and shaped by both visible and silent mentors, she has not participated in any formal mentoring programs. However, she has received varied levels of informal mentoring from other colleagues within her Department, COE, and other university personnel. She has a diverse group of mentors; women and men, old and young, various ethnic and racial backgrounds, various educational levels, as well as various career positions. She has worked with her female colleagues within the COE to establish a peer mentor group to provide support, exchange information, and engage in collaborative activities. Although, these relationships have had a positive impact on her professional development and growth, there are instances where she needed to seek mentorship from colleagues external to PVAMU. In such cases, she sought the advice of colleagues at other institutions, within her family, and former academic advisors. During her five year career, she has been successful in achieving external research funding, sustaining an excellent teaching record while providing an extraordinary amount of service to the students, the COE, and the University. Notwithstanding, there are areas in her professional portfolio that have suffered (i.e., publication record and growth of a technical research program). Currently, she is working to strengthen these areas through mentor relationships and partnerships with colleagues internal and external to PVAMU who specifically assist her with addressing these areas of concerns. In conclusion, the mentors that influenced and continue to influence her life most are the women in her family. They have provided the foundation and moral compass that governs her approach to life.

Faculty Member #2
Faculty Member #2 has a BS and MS in Electrical Engineering and a Ph.D. in Computer Engineering. She joined the Department of Engineering Technology as a tenure-track Assistant Professor. She has received assistance and informal mentoring from senior faculty members within her department. However, there has been no formal mechanism that promotes senior faculty mentorship of junior faculty within her department. Consequently, in the beginning it was not clear what the specific expectations of her faculty position were and how to accomplish success; thus, she struggled a long time to adjust. To add to her frustrations, there was a two year period of administrative instability at the Department Head level. With the new Department Head, the faculty expectations for tenure and promotion were clarified. Although she believes her progress has been “slow”, she has successfully published in reputable engineering journals, acquired an exceptional teaching record, and provided invaluable service to the Department, the COE, and the University. She has worked with the other female faculty in the COE to establish a peer mentoring group to share information and discuss problems of concern. Based on her experience, she supports the establishment of a PVAMU mentoring program for junior level faculty in order to nurture and ensure their professional growth and development. In conclusion, good mentors can have a monumental impact on the growth and development of a career, particularly at the beginning stages. Her mom, who is a nuclear engineer, is one of her strongest mentors and supporters who have provided the standard that guides her professional career.  Additionally, her former advisor has played a significant role in helping her set goals towards academic perfection.

 

Faculty Member #3
Faculty Member#3 received her BS, MS, and PhD in Electrical Engineering. She joined the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering as a tenure-track Assistant Professor. She has received very little mentoring within her department, yet she has witnessed: a male colleague who entered the department at the same time engage in a mentoring relationship that has enhanced his career significantly. Although she would have loved for this to have happened to her, it did not and she has often felt alienated within the department. She attributes this to her being a female in a male-dominated workplace. In spite of her department not having a formal mentoring program, she sought mentoring from faculty at other universities and outside of academia. Early in her career, she collaborated in research with a university in the Midwest. This particular university had a leader who truly supported diversity and had an interest in her career. She developed a mentoring relationship with him and he was one of the top researchers in his area. This relationship has helped her career significantly. Also, she is from a family of engineers who have many years of industrial experience. Because of the close relationship with her family mentors, their genuine concern for my success, and clear understanding of her personal and career goals, they have been successful in influencing her behavior, career decisions, as well as providing networking opportunities. In closing, she truly believes that her department needs a formal mentoring program.

Faculty Member #4
The fourth faculty member joined the Department of Computer Science as a tenure-track Assistant Professor. In attaining BS and PhD degrees in Computer Science, she contributes informal mentoring and strong peer mentoring relationships as a catalyst for her success in completing the respective degree programs. As the only AA tenure track female faculty in her department she struggled to develop the type of peer mentoring relationships she had become accustomed to earlier in her academic preparation. The academic position was her first challenging situation without a strong support system of peers and informal mentors. Navigating the rigors of an academic career without any formal and very little informal mentoring, while trying to balance work and family has created major career challenges for her in establishing a strong tenure portfolio. After struggling for the first few years, she realized she would have to be proactive in seeking mentoring relationships outside the department and in some cases outside the university.Participation in national conferences and workshops targeted at new female or minority faculty served as a means for career advice and provided opportunities to establish networks and informal mentoring relationships. Collaborating and establishing peer mentoring relationships with COE female faculty has had a profound effect on her career success. Using these avenues, she has been able to successfully obtain research funding and increase her publication record while continuing to provide service and creating opportunities for the female students in the college.

Faculty Member #5
The last faculty member received her BS, MS, and PhD in Civil Engineering. She joined the Department of Civil & Environment Engineering as a tenured Professor and Department Head. Unequivocally, mentoring has been a major contributor to her success as a professional as well as an individual. In retrospect, mentoring actually began within the confines of her home. As the last of seven children, her mother and siblings were her initial mentors and role models. However, as she began to identify her career goals, her mentoring pool expanded to individuals external to the immediate family. This combination equipped her with the breath and depth that would be needed to navigate the challenges of operating in a male-dominated profession, such as engineering. As a female AA working in a fast pace, highly technical and demanding environment, engaging in some form of mentoring was a must . Through the nurturing of several mentors, she become the first female AA to graduate with a PhD from the School of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology and the first female and AA to lead the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering in the history of PVAMU. Indeed, her positive mentoring experiences equipped her with the right ingredients to nurture others as well as serve as an advocate for institutionalizing formal mentoring programs.

Observations
As the need to focus on the growing national problem of producing a well trained scientific workforce increases, there has been a concomitant concern for the recruitment, retention, and graduation of women and minorities in these fields, particularly in the areas of engineering and technology. “Access to same-gender faculty role models is critical to the success of female STEM students at every level in the pipeline [3].”

“Women work in academic engineering positions in lower percentages (10 percent) relative to the overall percentage of women receiving engineering doctorates (17 percent). Increasing the presence of women and minority faculty in engineering schools is critical since increasing the role models and mentors encourage the persistence of undergraduate and graduate students in technical fields [3].”

Consequently, it is imperative that female faculty are nurtured and retained if the national demands to replenish the engineering and technical workforce are to be met. Moreover, research suggests that universities that have established mentoring programs experience greater success in the professional growth and development of its faculty, particularly the female faculty members.

The female faculty at PVAMU has experienced many of the obstacles often noted in the literature. Although the individual experiences within their respective departments and the COE have been different, all suggest that the lack of a formal mentoring program has made adjusting to academia more challenging. Additionally, they recommend that the university and the COE establish formal mentoring programs to ensure that “all” faculty are successful. 

Lessons Learned

  1. Four of the faculties in this article are products of HBCU’s, which are traditionally nurturing environments. However, their experience as a faculty member has not mirrored their experience as students.
  2. Developing internal and/or external mentoring relationships is vital to the professional development and advancement of faculty in academia.
  3. In the absence of formalized mentoring programs, it is imperative that an individual take a proactive approach to develop such relationships.
  4. Cultural and gender bias can be barriers for female and minority faculty when seeking mentoring relationships.
  5. Professional growth and advancement is still possible despite non-ideal working environments.

References

 “NSF Science and Engineering Doctorate Awards: 2005”, Retrieved from www.nsf.gov on December 2, 2007.

 “National Science Foundation. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering, 2007”, retrieved from www.nsf.gov on December 5, 2007.

“The Engineering Workforce:  Current State, Issues, and Recommendations”, May 2005. 

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