Dr. Emmanuel Collins, Dean of the J.B. Speed School of Engineering, sees himself in the students of color at the University of Louisville. 

One of only two Research I universities in Kentucky and a member of the ACC, the high-performing institution faces the same issue many other engineering programs encounter around the country. Individuals who identify as Black, Hispanic/Latinx, first-generation, and female barely account for half of the student population. Dr. Collins empathizes and notes its impact on sense of belonging within STEM careers. 

“I’m particularly sensitive to this. When I got to graduate school, I went through a year of struggle as a researcher, and the journals that I would read would have pictures of people who were doing work in that area. Not once did I ever see anybody that was Black, African American, African, West Indian – not once. And so I wondered did I actually belong here, in that program.”

Where the J.B. Speed School does differ is the higher-than-average percentage of Pell-eligible undergraduate students (30%). This reality and the success of other formalized support programs on campus inspired Dr. Collins and Associate Dean Gail DePuy, Ph.D., P.E., to actively address issues discouraging students from entering or staying in a STEM degree program. 

Starting with reimagining the school’s strategic plan, the J.B. Speed School of Engineering is adapting its successful high-school bridge program, the Brown-Forman Engineering Academy (BFEA), to offer several key elements to all students with a focus on those with at-risk markers (low socioeconomic status, first-generation, low self-esteem). 

These three key elements are: 

  • Early Math Preparation 
  • Peer Mentoring
  • Exposure to Faculty in Non-Threatening Situations 

The current BFEA program has yielded exceptional outcomes for high school students with at-risk markers. The vast majority of participants from the 2016 cohort to the 2020 cohort is still seeking engineering degrees and consistently outperforms the general class’ cumulative GPA. 

University of Louisville BFEA Program Results

Critical to the path of welcoming diversity and student success is the Speed School Alliance in Mentorship (SAM), a partnership with the Mentor Collective life-cycle mentorship program connecting freshmen and sophomores to upperclassmen and upperclassmen to alumni. 

“We know that this [mentorship] is creating a sense of belonging to Speed School. What we want is for students to stick with the program even when things get difficult. Engineering is hard. It was hard for me. There are rough spots. If you have a mentor and if you feel you belong in that program, you will stick with it.” 

Also critical is addressing the fear of judgment or failure – specifically affecting students with less exposure to academia. Dr. Collins notes having a mentor severely reduces the discomfort and threat of the engineering program.

“If you come from a small community where many people around you were not wealthy, and now you come to the ‘big city,’ and you have all these PhDs. They look so smart and are putting up complicated equations. That’s threatening. If you feel like you belong, you stick it out.” 

In less than two hours of staff time per week, J.B. Speed School and Mentor Collective have implemented a scalable, campus-wide system, providing 330 students with trained, relevant, peer or alumni mentors. 

We look forward to tracking the impact on melt, retention, student sense of belonging and career efficacy throughout the five-year partnership.

To hear more about University of Louisville’s journey to a more diverse student population, watch the full event here

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