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Wāhine Connect student leaders Joy Maehara and Mia Casparian at a recent outreach event.

Engineering and other STEM professions have long been challenged with attracting women, a problem that starts with engagement at the K–12 level and continues through college and beyond. At the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa College of Engineering, where female students make up only 23% of the student population, the imbalance is often not as apparent as the statistics indicate, with women students taking up prominent leadership roles within project teams and clubs and winning accolades for scholastic achievement. Still, it’s a statistic many at the college would like to see changed, an effort that involves not just recruitment but retention of talented women in the program.

Student ambassadors at the College of Engineering are making strides to build a more inclusive environment for women with the creation of the school’s Wāhine Connect program, a group that serves as an outlet for relaxation, relationship-building and professional growth.

In fall 2021, the college’s team of Engineering Student Ambassadors launched a program to foster a sense of community for its female students and create a safe space for growth and learning. The program, called the Wāhine Mentorship Program, started out over Zoom, with monthly events, such as online game nights, craft nights and panel discussions. The group gained steam and, after reviewing feedback from participants in the first year, was rebranded in fall 2022 as Wāhine Connect. With its new direction, Wāhine Connect has decreased the barrier to entry so that students can jump in and participate in programming at any time, offering all female engineering students (along with their friends and male allies) a chance to enjoy social activities, engage in professional development and build connections with one another via low-pressure, free monthly events.

Mia Casparian, a junior majoring in electrical engineering, serves as an engineering student ambassador and has been active in planning and developing the Wāhine Connect program since its inception.

“Wāhine Connect is really important because with our smaller female student population, it’s important for us to have a way to network, connect and make other female engineering friends, as well as learn from people who have moved on to work in industry and get advice from them on that transition,” Casparian said. “From an organizer standpoint, I love seeing it come together, and seeing people interact and form real friendships outside of the program.”

Connecting with local HS students

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Wāhine Connect student leaders speak at a recent outreach event at Kapolei High School.

This year, Wāhine Connect integrated a service component to the program. At Castle High School, engineering ambassadors chatted with students about careers in STEM and the opportunities within the engineering pathway. The College of Engineering also has a year-round presence at Castle via a program called EngineeringHI, where tutors/mentors (some of whom are also affiliated with Wāhine Connect) come to campus multiple times a week for in-school and after-school assistance STEM subjects.

At Kapolei High School, ambassadors met with students in the engineering/design and building/construction career pathways.

Courtney Suma, Kapolei’s career academy advisor, said, “We truly appreciated that their presentation didn’t focus only on the College of Engineering, but included their lives as college students, their past experiences that shaped who they are today, and their future.”

The team’s final engagement opportunity of the semester was a “Women in STEM” presentation at Damien Memorial School. At this event, co-organized by Damien President Arnold Laʻanui and Principal Kyle Atabay, 12 middle and high school-age girls engaged with College of Engineering students and staff, hearing from student ambassadors about their experiences in college and engaging in friendly competition with one another via an engineering design challenge.

Wāhine Connect spring 2023 events

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Wāhine Connect held the second annual Picnic and Painting in the Park event in April 2023.

On campus, Wāhine Connect kicked off the 2023 spring semester with a Galentine’s event in February, complete with cookie decorating, a chocolate fondue fountain and a Valentine’s-card-making activity to create cards for special women in the students’ lives. In March, the student ambassadors organized a Brunch and Learn event with engineering alumna Lindsey Tagawa, a 2021 bachelor of science in civil engineering graduate and now an engineer at NAVFAC Pacific. Tagawa shared her personal story of transitioning from student to professional and answered questions from an attentive student audience.

In April, Wāhine Connect held its last big social event of the year: the second annual Picnic and Painting in the Park. Students sat on the Holmes Hall lawn painting their own unique creations on small canvases as they enjoyed poke bowls and cream puffs.

For more, visit the College of Engineering website.

To support the Engineering Student Ambassador Program, visit the UH Foundation website.

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