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Lean On Me: For Stevens women, mentorship matters

Fattum Abbad — who’s known as Febe — had not even completed her first year at Stevens but was already seeking and embracing the help of other women on campus, mentors who are guiding her on her journey.

Stevens’ Society of Women Engineers group, which offers student-to-student mentors, has shown her how to conduct herself during job interviews and explained what business casual really means.

Then there’s Professor Jennifer McBryan.

Abbad, a biomedical engineering major, had taken McBryan’s Freshman Experience writing and humanities classes and needed help with an essay for a dental program she’s applying to for the summer. McBryan encouraged her to feel comfortable with really pushing her achievements in her essay, Abbad says. She has also helped resolve course scheduling conflicts.

“She was making sure that I was getting what I needed,” Abbad says. “I feel comfortable talking with her about anything — writing or otherwise.”

Women students at Stevens are forming these mentorship relationships with faculty and staff, and with each other. Women who experience these relationships reap the benefits: an increased ability to envision their career path; an expanded professional network; more confidence in their abilities; greater career satisfaction.

While some women students express the desire for more women faculty to connect with, mentor relationships are happening all across campus, from the work of chemical engineering professor Stephanie Lee to biomedical engineering professor Vikki Hazelwood Ph.D. ’07.

Melanie Caba ’19 can immediately identify her mentor: biomedical engineering professor Carrie Perlman. Caba has done research with Perlman, and they’ve discussed her options post-graduation. (Caba has chosen a master’s degree from Stevens, then a job in product development, maybe a Ph.D. and teaching.)

Perlman standing with studentsBiomedical engineering professor Carrie Perlman, third from left, poses with her mentee Melanie Caba ’19, far left, and post-doctoral students who served on Perlman’s summer research team.

“Having a mentor is having another helpful individual solidify what you think is right,” Caba says. “It really helps you have confidence in yourself.”

Some mentorship relationships continue well beyond Castle Point.

Business and technology major Bianca (Caseiro) Costa ’15, calls School of Business professor Ann Murphy a role model and a friend. Murphy was a constant sounding board for schoolwork and job recommendations in the finance industry, and Costa credits her guidance in helping her secure internships every summer.

“I really trust her judgment,” Costa says. “She helped pave the way for my career.”

Costa, who now works with Oppenheimer Funds in New York, keeps in touch regularly with Murphy.

“Finding someone you look up to in so many ways is rare. She’s also such a great mom and is so involved with her children. A strong woman like her makes for a great mentor in life, not just school.”

Like Murphy, civil engineering professor Leslie Brunell ’86 M.Eng.’90 Ph.D. ’96 has been a longtime mentor for students and junior faculty. This current SWE advisor has a particularly close bond with Lauren Tagliaferro ’13 M.Eng. ’16 and her husband Frank Belardo ’13 M.Eng. ’18.

Brunell advised their senior design teams and taught real-world lessons that Tagliaferro says she uses every day as a project engineer at Langan Engineering and Environmental Services.

“She always kept in touch. She always lets you know that if there’s anything you need from her, she’s there to help and she truly means it,” Tagilaferro says.

“I try to prepare my students who are entering more male-dominated fields,” says Brunell, who has had a long career as a consulting engineer. “It’s not easy.”

With a generation gap in civil engineering right now, some older men may come across as harsh in their critiques; she encourages her students to learn from the criticism and move on. She also urges them not to get pushed around.

And if a colleague is inappropriate, women must stand up for themselves, she tells her students.

“If someone hugs you and it’s inappropriate, fight back. Make it known that it’s not acceptable.”

Brunell, Murphy and others are well known for their close ties with their students. They attend their students’ weddings and, recently, Brunell went one step beyond.

A month before Tagilaferro’s and Belardo’s wedding last year, the priest scheduled to marry them was injured in a car accident. So they called upon Brunell, who is ordained to officiate weddings.

“She did an amazing job and made our wedding so personal,” Tagliaferro said. “That just attests to the type of person she is.”