Officials hope residence will encourage more women to enter the field and provide a structure for them to succeed
BY CARL BLESCH
When Tatyana Crespo made an overnight visit to Rutgers last spring to learn about on-campus living options, she learned she’d have an opportunity to make history.
Crespo was interested in the Douglass Residential College, with its opportunities to study and live with other women who “think just like I do, that are very strong-willed.” But as an engineering major, she was aware that the trek from the Douglass Campus residences to the Busch Campus, where most engineering classes take place, would consume a lot of time.
Then she learned that the college was working with the School of Engineering to create a new living-learning community on the Busch Campus, mere steps from her classes and labs.
“I got really excited, and that was the only thing I looked into during the summer,” said Crespo, who is from Millstone Township.
Today, Crespo is one of 20 women making history as the inaugural group of first-year Douglass students to live in university housing off of the Douglass Campus.
The new Douglass Women in Engineering Living-Learning Community is located in one wing of the fourth floor of Barr Hall, which has been a freshmen engineering residence since 2004.
As with other Rutgers living-learning communities (LLCs) in the liberal arts, sciences and several professional schools, it provides a close-knit living environment with academic mentoring and group activities for students in a common field of study. The new LLC fortifies an engineering experience with a women’s college environment, highlighted by Douglass’s renowned women’s leadership and mentoring programs.
While the LLC’s offerings are rich, its goal is straightforward: to recruit and retain more women in engineering.
“Our nation is facing a crisis in the pipeline for science and technology talent,” said Jacquelyn Litt, dean of the Douglass Residential College. “Part of the reason is that women have been excluded from or have not chosen to pursue these fields. By offering role models and hands-on experiences in a community of other women, we are providing a structure where women can succeed.”
Thomas Farris, dean of the School of Engineering, says the LLC will accelerate progress that the school is already proud of. Women’s enrollment reached 136 last year – a record at the time – and then set a new record this fall with 158 women. The school ranks in the nation’s top 25 for undergraduate degrees awarded to women. But Farris sees success beyond mere numbers.
“Many of our most successful student organizations are led by women,” he said, referring to honor societies, professional societies and service activities such as Engineers without Borders. “The living-learning community will continue to expand their presence.”
Many of the students in the LLC excelled at math and science in high school and were advised by parents and high school teachers to consider engineering as a field that made good use of these skills, offered career choices and provided opportunities for community service. Amanda Chin of Monroe Township was one of those students.
“My AP calculus teacher was so passionate about engineering,” said Chin, a Monroe Township resident. “She told me, ‘I really feel like you would make a great engineer.’”
Reflecting on her plans to pursue biomedical engineering, Chin said, “I thought, why not use my strengths in a major that could be helpful to my community?”
Katherine Lau of Las Vegas, Nevada, chose Rutgers because of the diverse range of majors and offerings in engineering. When considering her dorm choices, her mother encouraged her to consider the LLC because it provided a comprehensive support system. This includes a peer academic leader – an engineering senior who lives in the dorm with the new students – and a second-year graduate student who relates current studies to post-graduate study and professional careers.
“It’s a good way to learn to be strong women and how to be successful in the world,” Lau said.
The LLC’s coordinators, Laura Stiltz and Candiece White, were excited about offering the new opportunity, but knew the onus was on them to recruit a group of interested students. Their efforts, which involved mailing information to admitted students and speaking at tours, orientations and a Rutgers Day program, paid off handsomely. Twenty-seven women applied for the 20 available slots.
Stiltz cited recent studies of women in science and technology that show women have more positive perceptions of their abilities when they’re with other women.
“We’re providing a space to come back to at the end of the day, where they can study with other women,” said Stiltz, director of Douglass Project research programs and advising for undergraduate women in science, technology, engineering and math. “It becomes a safe space for them – where they can let their hair down and be themselves and be engineers.”
While the students will live together for only a year, White expects them to stick together as a cohort in both Douglass and Engineering.
“Our goal beyond the first year is to make sure they know our support is there until they graduate,” said White, director of women in engineering programs in the School of Engineering. “We’re saying to them, ‘Welcome to Rutgers, and we’ll be there to celebrate with you when you’re done with your degree.’”
This fall, the LLC students will be taking the Douglass women’s leadership course, and in the spring, they will have an exclusive section of an engineering exploration course that introduces new students to several fields of engineering. Helen Buettner, professor of biomedical engineering, will teach the course.
“This is a collaboration that both Douglass and Engineering have been wanting for a long time,” White said. “This is a big deal for us. It’s not just talk anymore – it’s actually reality.”