Sunday, October 8, 2017

African-American Engineering Students Want Shrinking UT Enrollment Figured Out

By Louise Rodriguez (Spring 2017 Final)

Jade Jackson and Faith Carter think in terms of numbers just about every day. As engineering students at the University of Texas at Austin for the past four years, their work has involved solving complicated math concepts. But a lingering problem confuses Jackson and Carter: the flagging enrollment rate of African-American students, particularly that of women, in the Cockrell School of Engineering.

“I remember looking at the numbers and it doesn’t make sense—there were about 40 black women total (at Cockrell),” said Jackson, reflecting on a previous year in the program.
For the past two decades, African-American undergraduate enrollment at the University of Texas’ Cockrell School of Engineering has dropped from 4.5 percent of total undergraduates in 1996 to 2 percent in 2016. At a time when the Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures” has inspired students, particularly African-American girls, to consider science, technology, engineering and math careers, UT’s winnowing proportion of African-American female students at Cockrell—from 1.6 percent of total engineering undergrads in 1996 to just under 0.7 percent this year—has left minority students like seniors Jackson and Carter questioning administrators and UT’s recruitment efforts.

UT isn’t unique—Texas A&M and the University of Houston engineering programs also experienced declines in the shares of African-American female students between 1996 and 2016, each currently under one percent of total undergraduates. Enrollment of African-American male students at all three engineering programs also decreased.

For Carter who’s studying petroleum engineering at UT, which is top-ranked in US News and World Report, the stress of being one of only two female black students in her program for all four years, she said, has sometimes been almost unbearable. Carter said it’s been hard to fit into the mainly homogenous culture of petroleum engineering, a largely male-dominated industry historically called “the old white boys club.”

“I was just experiencing so much racism,” she said. “It was honestly horrible.”

Carter described an incident in a required class at Cockrell when her professor, in front of scores of students, walked up to where she was seated in the front row and dropped a stack of turned-in homework assignments on the classwork she was doing. She said he wanted her to organize the papers.

“The whole class starts laughing,” said Carter.

Humiliated and fighting tears, she said she approached the instructor after class to get an explanation, but was met with defensiveness and denial of any racial intent. Her parting words to him that day were to never do that sort of thing again.

Carter and Jackson said a constant stream of micro-aggressions—intentional or unintentional verbal or behavioral racial slights—like these occur at Cockrell but it is frustrating to get others to notice them.   

“When you have those types of experiences and you tell someone who is not black, you’ll sound crazy because they’ll think that you’re overreacting,” said Jackson.

Women in Engineering Director Tricia Berry said that UT, in general, has a history of being unwelcoming to minority groups. Her job is to try and correct this reality by recruiting and retaining women and underrepresented minorities at Cockrell. Berry’s office works alongside Cockrell’s Equal Opportunity in Engineering (EOE) program, which identifies high school students across the state who may be eligible to attend their on-campus My Introduction to Engineering summer program or other weekend events throughout the school year.

One of EOE’s visions is for underrepresented minority groups in the program to approach the current 12-percent share that represents all college-age African-American students in the Texas. For Enrique Dominguez, EOE director, the goal right now is to get as many minority students as possible to apply.

Hispanic engineering enrollment rates have fared better at UT, rising and falling between 1996 and 2016 to settle at roughly 15 percent of total engineering undergraduates at Cockrell. American Indian and Hawaiian and Pacific Islander enrollment during that time remained under 0.5 percent.

Although the EOE program does minority outreach to schools across the state and has raised the number of applicants over the years, EOE states that when UT admissions takes over, a good portion of recruits is cast off.

“What happens is, we get all these students excited and then they go through the admissions process and it’s essentially cut down to a quarter,” said Dominguez.

Breaking the UT admissions ceiling for some academically unprepared students can be difficult. Dominguez counsels Cockrell students to not view unpreparedness as synonymous with “less than” and reminds them that they deserve to be at the school.

Jackson and Carter have spoken out to Cockrell administrators about the low representation of African-American students at the school and about discrimination they said they’ve encountered there, and eventually decided to survey African-American engineering students. Results of the survey, Carter said, showed a majority either experienced racism by a professor or felt singled out in class.

To address these issues, a task force comprised of Cockrell School administrators, faculty and students formed shortly afterward. Although the Diversity Action Task Force’s intent was to improve inclusion of African-American students in the school, Carter was disappointed when, she said, administrators made it immediately clear that issues related to African-American students would not be the sole focus of the team.

Circumstances must be just right for African-Americans to be accepted into an engineering program like Cockrell, explained Carter. Her own journey, like that of Jackson’s, was influenced by dedicated and savvy parents who molded their children into above average students.

“A lot of the black students in engineering come from families like ours. Both their parents are engineers or are scientists,” said Carter. “You have to have had an insane backdrop, some insane support system.”

Attracting those “highly sought-after” female African-American students who qualify to attend Cockrell, said Berry, pits UT against schools like MIT and Georgia Tech. She said EOE’s goal is to get as many women and minorities they can to attend Cockrell and then support them through the program.

Inequities stem from the early years of a child’s education, said Jackson, who is the local chapter president of the National Society Black Engineers. Her parents had to fight to get her admitted to their public elementary school’s gifted and talented program. Later, when she entered high school, she noticed a dichotomy at play. Inside her school’s advanced placement (AP) classrooms, Jackson said she was usually the only black student. She explained that while her predominantly white Pearland, Texas, school district was well-funded, she said some other Texas school districts today fall financially short.

“To even apply to be in engineering in UT, you have to be taking certain classes. You have to be calculus-ready to be prepared for math and science,” said Jackson. AP classes train students well, but Jackson said many poor districts in Texas lack resources to provide AP offerings.

Berry added that poorly funded rural Texas high schools sometimes have to get by with scheduling physics classes every other year, making it even harder for students to experience engineering or be exposed to an unfamiliar career path, like engineering.

Improving opportunities for younger African-American students is a life goal for Jackson, who said her career plans include leading a Fortune 500 company and starting an educational nonprofit. Her mission is to make students more competitive by working with them from an early age, when the type of student they will eventually become starts to take shape.

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