Though still completing their undergraduate degrees, Pajaka Lakshmin and Uma Sinha have their sights firmly set on careers in engineering — Lakshmin is enrolled in a five-year B.S. + M.S. program at UC Riverside and plans to go straight into industry after earning her master’s degree, while Sinha wants to earn a master’s degree and then enter medical school after completing her undergraduate degree at UCR. Each is being supported, challenged, and informed along their journeys by their participation and leadership roles in the Society of Women Engineers at UCR (SWE), a donor-funded student organization specializing in professional and academic development, increasing the female presence in the Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering (BCOE), and presenting outreach opportunities that encourage young students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.
“Donor support means everything to us, especially since without our donors, we wouldn’t be able to put on these events and really showcase what it means to be a woman in engineering,” Sinha, a fourth-year bioengineering major and president of SWE, said. “I know every single time we have an event, it’s always a success, and when it’s a success, everyone is really happy and feels like we’ve really done something for our community and really feels like we’ve made a difference.”
Sinha knows how impactful this kind of exposure to professional engineers and the field of engineering can be for students. “There was a guest speaker in one of my freshman seminar classes that talked about bioengineering,” she said, “I thought that was an interesting field, especially since I like math and I really wanted something more hands-on, so I decided to declare bioengineering as my major.”
An extracurricular activity set Lakshmin up for a career in engineering. “I was introduced to it when I was in elementary school,” the third-year computer science major and SWE vice president said. “I joined the Lego Robotics team in second or third grade and I was hooked, I loved every aspect of it from the designing to the building and then coding with the robot.”
In SWE, Sinha, Lakshmin, and the organization’s other members have found a nurturing and encouraging environment where they can build relationships with students who have similar academic interests and career aspirations. For the current academic year, just 24% of students in BCOE at UCR identify as female. By contrast, half of the UCR student population identifies as female. The numbers are only slightly better beyond campus where, according to the national SWE organization, women comprise 29% of all STEM workers.
“A benefit [of SWE membership] is knowing that there is a support system of other students who are going through that same process of being a female in engineering but also making it out and going into the industry,” Fernanda Rojas, professional development coordinator in BCOE and SWE advisor.
SWE at UCR has worked for nearly 30 years to encourage more women and girls to enter engineering. Through the work of its student members and the support of its donors, SWE hosts annual networking events to introduce engineering students to researchers and recruiters, as well as outreach events that bring elementary, middle, and high school students to UCR to learn more about engineering. Members can also be matched with mentors, participate in professional development workshops, hear guest speakers, and attend conferences while developing an encouraging community at UCR and beyond.
Donors to the organization recognize how crucial developing those networks at UCR and beyond is for SWE members.
“By providing an increased level of engagement between students, alumni, and prospective employers in the aerospace manufacturing space, we can create awareness for high-technology opportunities that may not have been recognized in the past,” said Bart van Kooten, vice president and chief technical officer at Sorenson Engineering, a Yucaipa, California-based microtechnology solutions company that supports SWE. “Our mission is to encourage and support women in pursuing careers in engineering and to help them realize the benefits and opportunities that come with it.”
In addition to nurturing relationships among its members, SWE also builds important connections between members and engineering firms.
“SWE has great networking events and partnerships with industry,” said Heather D. Kane ’92, lead associate with technology and engineering solutions provider Booz Allen Hamilton and a SWE donor. “Getting involved with SWE early is a great way to start exploring how you want to begin your career.”
SWE has found committed partners in industry who also want to see the number of women in engineering increase.
“This network is invaluable, especially early in a young engineer's career” said Jeffrey McDaniel ’11 B.S., ’13 M.S., ’16 Ph.D., a software engineer at DoorDash who attended SWE events during his time at UCR and now supports the organization as a donor. “Unfortunately, women are underrepresented in many areas of engineering, and the support network that they develop through this organization can help them become an example for other young women and girls to look up to as they begin their journey in engineering.”
For more information on the Society of Women Engineers at UCR, visit ucrswe.carrd.co.