Anita Asuquo

Anita Asuquo, B.S. Mechanical Engineering '15

Purdue Mechanical Engineering Tinkers with Diversity

Five mechanical engineering faculty have been selected for TECAID, a National Science Foundation diversity training program. They will use the training to help recruit African-American students. 

Anita Asuquo graduated in May (2015) with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University as the only African-American student in a class of about 287, according to the department. 

As the numbers would suggest, the road to achievement proved difficult. Asuquo walked the halls among her peers in an impersonal and rigorous academic environment she said.

"On my good days, I wanted to quit," said the 23-year-od.

She found support from the Minority Engineering Program (MEP) at Purdue, mentors from the Purdue chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and her few fellow African-American classmates.

"(Friendship) came easier with someone who looked like me," she said. "It's not segregation. It's the fact that when you go into places like Purdue University, (which has) a small black or Hispanic population, it can be discouraging when no one looks like you, especially in a technical field."

Eleven students, or less than 1 percent of the 1,376 undergraduate students enrolled in Purdue's mechanical engineering program in fall 2014 were African-American, making them the most underrepresented minority population, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research, Assessment and Effectiveness.

Across Indiana, African-Americans comprise more than 13 percent of residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The TECAID program takes a top-down approach to shifting the culture in mechanical engineering to a more diverse environment, inclusive of women and underrepresented minorities. 

Purdue's mechanical engineering program is one of five in the country to participate in the National Science Foundation-funded program. Other universities include: Michigan Technological University, Oregon State University, Texas Tech University, and the University of Oklahoma.

Klod Kokini, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and a Professor of Mechanical Engineering, said the faculty members will undergo diversity training, such as learning about stereotypes, bias, how to plan for change and how to understand the way minorities experience mechanical engineering.

"The hope and expectation is ultimately it will lead to changes that will make it a more welcoming environment for everyone," he said.

During the project, faculty members will participate in a virtual learning community in which they can work together and learn from each other and other experts, he said. Faculty members also will work on projects such as analyzing the impact of the curriculum on minority students, Kokini added.

Anil Bajaj, Department Head and Professor of Mechanical Engineering, said it's difficult to know exactly why African-American students are underrepresented, but the faculty will work with students to identify barriers.

Jim Jones, Associate Professor and Associate Head of Mechanical Engineering, said that because the numbers are so low, black students lack the same kind of community as other students.

Asuquo said she had to work to create community. She befriended other black students in her program, even to the point of scheduling classes together.

She also was involved with MEP and had mentors through the Purdue chapter of NSBE. She saw some of her mentors graduate when she was a freshman.

"You always knew it was possible because you had seen somebody do it," she said. "You just had to power through it."

Story Originally Appeared in JConline by: Taya Flores 2:18 p.m. EDT June 9, 2015

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