Student groups, funding seek to offset historic diversity shortage
The UNLV Howard Hughes College of Engineering is working to promote the success of minority students through scholarships, advising programs and connections with industries seeking employees with college degrees.
“Minorities make up about 55 percent of the engineering student population,” said Rama Venkat, dean of the college of engineering.
Venkat said that Caucasian students make up about 40 percent or less of the engineering college’s population.
“We have a lot of Hispanics and a lot of Asian Americans,” Venkat said. ” About 18 percent [are] women.”
Eight percent of the college’s students are African American, which is comparable to the Nevada System of Higher Education’s enrollment average.
Last year, the college gave nearly $10,000 in scholarships to minority students and additionally gave out close to $250,000 for other scholarships.
Minority student organizations are important in the college as well. The Society for Women Engineers, the Society for Hispanic Engineers and the National Society for Black Engineers all have chapters at UNLV.
“I think our college is the only one that has professional societies for all [these] minority [groups],” Venkat said.
There is also a group for Indian engineering students.
Venkat said that minority students often visit schools for recruitment and attend meetings for professional training.
“We have scholarships dedicated to minorities in engineering and the Multicultural Engineering Program,” Venkat said.
The Multicultural Engineering Program is open to all students but was created to assist historically underserved student populations through academic advising, personal counseling, tutoring and help in finding student jobs in science and engineering industries.
But there is still a long way to go.
“The sciences, mathematics and engineering historically for the last 200 years are some of the least diverse disciplines in the United States,” said Tim Porter, dean of the college of sciences.
According to the Science and Engineering Indicators report by the National Science Board, students who major in science or engineering fields complete their degree at a higher rate than students who receive degrees from other areas of study.
Venkat said that the report, which was released earlier this year, does not reflect UNLV’s situation because here, it takes students five years on average to graduate.
He said that the curriculum is difficult to complete in four years and that students need to carry 16 credits a semester if they wish to do so.
However, the engineering college retains about 80 percent of its first-year majors.
“A lot of [students] work, a lot of them are part-time and a lot of them are married,” Venkat said. “The average student age is 27, so they are not really right out of high school.”
Venkat said that because the average of students in the engineering college is higher than in other UNLV programs, his students may be more responsible.
“They are here and they are spending their money for a reason, so they are not going to quit,” Venkat said. “[The students] are graduating, but sometimes they take a long time to graduate.”
Porter believes that a four-year graduation target is attainable for students who enter college without having to take remedial courses, which can delay students finishing in a timely manner.
“If a student who comes to UNLV [is] prepared for college, they can finish in four years hands down,” Porter said.
Venkat believes that the engineering college has a good relationship with industry — which, he suggested, may set UNLV apart from other schools.
A large chunk of scholarship funds come from companies in the entertainment and construction fields.
“When they give us money they naturally have access to our students,” Venkat said. “Some of them come to classes to talk to students about opportunities.”
Venkat believes that the only way the college can compete with big-name schools is to focus on industry and entrepreneurship.
Many student projects are based in industry. One group of UNLV engineering students is developing a device like OnStar for motorcycles, and another is working on solar-powered water purifiers.
“I am hopeful that we instill enough entrepreneurship in our students, and we make our students not just employees,” Venkat said. “I want 80 percent of them employees and 20 percent of them to create jobs for the other 80 percent.
He said that model would help drive economic diversification and also build UNLV’s brand as a top-tier research institution.
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