Student Group Inspires Women in Engineering for More Than Three Decades

2/2/2012

As the faculty and staff of Stevens work tirelessly to produce engineers prepared to lead scientific discovery and manage technology to solve complex problems, one student organization – the Stevens chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) – has long-ensured that the University’s female undergraduates have the same opportunities to succeed in the engineering profession as their male classmates.

SWE is a national nonprofit that empowers women to advance in the field of engineering. For more than 30 years, Stevens has been home to a student chapter of SWE that is dedicated to raising the number of female engineering graduates and helping female students achieve full potential in engineering careers.

The establishment of the chapter – one of the Stevens’ earliest groups created for women and their advancement – was a grassroots effort by some of Stevens’ very first female engineering undergraduates. According to articles in The Stute from that year, it was established in the spring of 1976 with 19 members and officially chartered the following fall with 30 members – almost the entire female student body. President Linda O’Brien Hanley (’77) is quoted in The Stute as saying, “SWE hopes to become an active function for women on campus by serving as a medium for women to recognize and utilize the opportunities available for them.”

Soon after the chapter was chartered, Kathy Cunningham Seasholtz (‘78), the second president, and Dolores La Marca Wagoner (’79), vice president, attended a regional SWE conference hosted by the State University of New York (SUNY), which helped to enhance the group’s impact and membership, even though there were very few female students at Stevens at the time, let alone female engineering students.

“Once we had an idea of what our objectives should be and the critical mass to make an impact, we started providing academic, professional and personal support for the members of SWE with the goal of enhancing the position and image of women in engineering,” Wagoner said.

The chapter became more active on campus, working with the Stevens Admissions Department to encourage prospective female students to come to campus for tours and open houses and speaking to them about what it was like to be a woman in a male-dominated university and career path. Another major contribution was leading discussion groups at Stevens’ first-ever “Women in Engineering” program, which brought more than 115 high school girls to campus for a day-long conference in 1977 and later became an annual event.

“Now, women in engineering are by and large accepted, but back then there were very few role models,” Seasholtz said. “So, back then – while the women’s movement was gaining momentum – SWE was mainly a recruiting tool. We showed young women that there were really talented women in engineering and we could support them if they wanted to study engineering and work in engineering careers.”

Through these promotional efforts, the chapter set an early precedent that the University would be highly supportive of women’s technical education. The current chapter, which has been in operation for a little over a year, is continuing to play its part.

Suzanne Hartwell, a Mechanical Engineering major and current president, was integral in restarting the chapter after a brief hiatus. Now a senior, Hartwell held a national membership to SWE even before enrolling at Stevens, and she was eager to join the student chapter during her freshman year. However, the chapter became inactive the following year. After she completed a co-op assignment in Illinois and was back on campus full-time, Hartwell made it her mission to get the chapter up and running again last spring.

“I felt that SWE was an extremely valuable and important organization, and I wanted to make sure Stevens was doing everything it could to make women a bigger part of engineering,” Hartwell said.

Today, there are 75 active members of the chapter, most of whom are female engineering majors but some who study related subjects, such as computer science. The group meets regularly to plan educational outreach activities, social events, professional development activities and fundraisers. This year’s planned activities include a blood drive, a visit to an elementary school to promote engineering to young girls, and an extremely popular “Top 10 Reasons to Date an Engineer” t-shirt sale.

Members also attend regional and national SWE conferences, where they attend seminars by successful female engineering executives, participate in leadership building activities, network with engineering students and professionals, and meet with potential employers at career fairs.

“We really are a family,” said Hartwell, who met her best friend and roommate through SWE. “It is so helpful to have female mentors who can give you advice on your classes, your resume, or your internship or job search.”

Students join SWE for many reasons, including networking opportunities, academic support, and, of course, resume-building. 

“Being a member of SWE looks impressive on resumes and was always the first thing employers asked me about during interviews,” said Hartwell, who has accepted a job offer from the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR).

Seasholtz and Wagoner, who both began their careers as the lone women in engineering departments made up of scores of men, said SWE was one of many aspects of their Stevens education that gave them the confidence to thrive.

“There were so few of us in academia or in industry, and we didn’t have many mentors or coaches of our own. It was important to have that bond and connection with other women who were facing the same challenges,” said Seasholtz.

“SWE was really networking for women in its earliest form,” added Wagoner.
 
The Stevens chapter of SWE has undoubtedly played an important role in the steady growth of the number and role of women at Stevens, as well as the acclaim of the University. In fact, its long history of initiatives to advance women in the field of engineering contributed to the Stevens Office of Women’s Programs winning the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 1998.

Even if it didn’t touch their lives directly, today, the thousands of women have who have graduated from Stevens with Bachelor of Engineering (B.E.) degrees and achieved career success in industry can thank the Stevens chapter of SWE for – at the very least – always supporting and encouraging their dreams. 

If you are interested in learning more about the Stevens chapter of SWE, please contact the Stevens Office of Student Life.