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What can universities do to motivate a generation of young Latinas to pursue STEM careers?
At the University of California, Davis, change begins at the top. A few years ago, campus leadership began to assess how it could attract women to desirable careers traditionally dominated by men – those involving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
In 2013, the campus initiated the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives on Science (CAMPOS) to promote women in science, especially Latinas. By diversifying its own STEM faculty and focus with more Hispanic and women professors, UC Davis is providing needed role models and mentors for its students. And the approach is already gaining traction. Forbes Magazine recently hailed the university as the No. 1 value college for women in STEM, with 56 percent female enrollment. It’s also on track to be designated a “Hispanic-Serving Institution” by 2018.
“The face of the United States, and of California, is changing. The university very much feels that scientists should reflect the demographics of the state that they serve,” says Mary Lou de Leon Siantz, Ph.D., R.N., founding director of the program. “CAMPOS has focused on creating an institution-wide diverse STEM research community across all relevant departments, with an initial focus on Latinas.”
Setting the tone
Highly recognized for her contributions to nursing and research,de Leon Siantzis a great example of what UC Davis hopes to promote: highly successful women scholars who build successful STEM careers, feel supported in their family lives – and serve as role models and mentors to inspire and guide others. De Leon Siantz herself managed to break through barriers with the help of teachers and mentors growing up, she says. Her working class immigrant parents from Mexico greatly valued education, and made sure de Leon Siantz attended good schools and received the support needed to keep her on track. Eventually, she earned a nursing degree at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles. Later, she received a master’s degree in nursing from UCLA, and her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland.
In the years since, the CAMPOS leader has continued to achieve within nursing and academia, where she is known for her research into migrant health, and for preparing health professionals for leadership roles. She has served as assistant dean of Diversity and Cultural Affairs at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, and is a founder of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses. She was associate dean and director of Milagros (Miracles) Center of Excellence in Migrant Health at Georgetown University.
In addition to leading CAMPOS, de Leon Siantz is professor at UC Davis’s Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing. She’s also associate director of the Community Engagement and Research Program within UC Davis’s Health Research Center, focusing on migrant population health.
Working to remove barriers
So why aren’t there more Hispanic women who follow a path similar to de Leon Siantz’s?
UC Davis is now three years into the five-year effort to understand why few Hispanic enter and advance within academic STEM careers. The investigation continues to follow the occupations of about 60 high-achieving Latinas across the country, de Leon Siantz says.
But a few things are clear: Besides feeling out of place within overwhelmingly male professions, young Latinas also don’t see many role models or get the kind of mentoring they need at a young age.
As with de Leon Siantz, many Latinas who succeed in STEM typically received coaching and guidance by parents or other adults growing up. Later, de Leon Siantz’s mentors were high school and college teachers who saw a spark in her, and worked to encourage her efforts. But it didn’t stop there. De Leon Siantz has continued to benefit from mentors throughout her professional career.
For Latinas and others considering a STEM career, finding a mentor is the single most important thing to do, she says.
“Challenges faced in science classes aren’t necessarily because you don’t have the ability to learn something. Often, the material is not taught in a way that is understandable,” she notes. A student mentor can “pull you into their labs as part of a team. This can help you see how what you’re learning in the classroom translates into the real world.”
Other barriers Latinas face?
Opportunities may be limited for teens “where there’s a lack of STEM mentors, role models, and other programs in school for them to get the needed science prerequisites,” she notes.
Other obstacles may be subtler. In leadership circles, Latinas are “seldom seen as having leadership potential.” While a diverse workforce is essential, equally urgent is the need for leadership diversity that reflects the changing demographics of the 21st century, to lead the “transformation in health, science and education to promote equity,” de Leon Siantz says.
The CAMPOS initiative at UC Davis hopes to break that cycle. Anybody coming into this program will be seen as having future leadership potential, and provided with the tools to become a transformative leader, she says.
Providing role models for Latina STEM students
At the core of CAMPOS is an effort to inspire and guide Latina scholars, but also ensure equitable career advancement for STEM faculty.
To date, the university has brought on nine of 16 new faculty members, most of them Latinas, who will also serve as role models and mentors for Latina and other students of color. UC Davis continues to work toward supporting those instructors with evolving policies and practices to ensure their careers advance, and that they may, for example, take time off to have and raise children without derailing their careers.
The changes promise greater opportunities for a generation of Latinas to seek exciting careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine, and nursing, while helping set the tone and provide a model for other colleges and universities.
“I see UC Davis continuing to be a world class think tank and research resource for producing diverse women in science,” de Leon Siantz says. “And at some point, a UC Davis grad from this program will become a Nobel Laureate, and she will likely be a woman of color.”
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