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Changes made to mentoring program for female engineers generate success

A group of women.

Members of Mizzou Women Mentoring Women, including director Lisa Wilken, front left, and adviser Heather K. Hunt, back fourth from left, meet for sugar cookie baking in early December. The organization fosters bonds between women in MU Engineering through professional, academic and social events.

The Mizzou Women Mentoring Women program, halfway through its second year, has implemented suggestions from first-year participants to support the goal of retaining female engineering students.

“I’m proud of the way our mentors have shown interest in their relationships and strive to make the mission of our program successful,” said junior computer engineering major Lisa Wilken, director of the mentoring program. “It’s been eye-opening to see so many women form bonds and put their energy into making their relationships thrive.”

The mentoring program is a mix of social and professional development events, along with a peer-to-peer mentoring pairing for younger students to learn from more advanced ones in the same engineering department. Last year, the program had 28 participants. At the beginning of this year, 70 signed up.

The program is separate from other organizations for female engineers, for example, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) but many are involved in both. Professional development events like resume workshops and career panels are often coordinated with SWE to prevent duplication of effort. The main focus of the program, however, is providing a social support system and opportunities.

Heather K. Hunt, an assistant professor in the Bioengineering Department, is the faculty adviser for the program, which she created. She’s had a goal of creating a mentoring program since she came to Mizzou and included funding for it in the very first grant proposal she wrote at the university.

“A lot of the research has demonstrated that one of the ways to help retain women in STEM is to have an official mentoring program for women,” Hunt said. “We have so many bright women who start out in engineering but they tend to drop out even if they have high grades, so it’s not because they can’t do it. There’s something else happening there.”

Mentor pairs are encouraged to meet for two hours every month, although that’s left up to individuals, Hunt said. The pairs are usually matched based on major, so younger students can get advice on what classes to take.

“The peer mentor should help them navigate the program but the organization as a whole has a social networking component,” Hunt said.

Wilken said her positive experience with the SWE led her to apply for a leadership position in the organization.

“I participated in the mentor program in SWE my freshman year, and it was a positive experience for me,” Wilken said. “It made sense to me to give back to such a great organization.”

There are usually two events, one social and one professional, every month. The professional events have included personality testing, mentor training, teamwork skills and problem solving for sensitive issues.

Hunt said one of the major goals for the organization in the future is to get more women from industry to come and speak with students. The mentoring program’s leadership is working to make contacts with industry professionals.

“It’s more important to make contacts and build a network within industry for our members because that’s where most of them want to go after graduation,” Hunt said.

Hunt said one of the challenges with the program is trying to encourage mentors and protégés to meet and build a relationship. Wilken said she’s seen some strong bonds formed and tries to facilitate that.

“Show your appreciation, and it will always pay off,” Wilken said. “I made an effort to speak to each mentor and protégé to let them know that I’m glad they’re here and that I truly care about them. This has caused some protégé and mentors to make strong connections to the program, which makes it successful overall.”

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