Program Helps Ease Transition Into College Life, Retain Women
Majoring in the Field
Aeronautical University announced Thursday -- during the 20th
annual Women in Aviation Conference in Atlanta, GA -- it has
launched an innovative peer mentoring program to help young women
aspiring to become engineers successfully transition from high
school through the critical first year of college.
The program, called FIRST (Female Initiatives: Reaching Success
Together) and funded by a grant from the Boeing Corporation, is
helping to curb the dropout rate of female engineering students in
their first year and give them tutoring in math and physics,
special activities, and mentoring to better ensure their success
during a demanding course of study.
Of the several engineering disciplines offered at Embry-Riddle,
the aerospace engineering program is the largest in the nation and
ranked No. 1 by US News & World Report, among universities
without doctoral programs.
Nationally, women majoring in engineering programs represent
approximately 20 percent of the undergraduate population at
universities such as Embry-Riddle; however, the dropout rate for
these women is much higher than their male counterparts, according
to Joanne Detore-Nakamura, Embry-Riddle’s director of
diversity initiatives and an associate professor, humanities and
social sciences. National data on student retention from the
National Academies of Engineering indicate only 40 to 60 percent of
entering engineering students persist to an engineering degree, and
women are at the low end of that range, despite many being high
"FIRST is a partnership between our College of Engineering, the
Office of Diversity Initiatives, and its Women's Center to give our
students an important confidence boost during their first critical
semester when all freshmen—males and females alike -- are
confronted with a whole new culture and set of demands," said
Detore-Nakamura. "Females in the engineering programs tend to quit
their major at a much higher and faster rate than
males—particularly if they encounter a stumbling block, such
as not passing a class. Pairing female freshmen with successful
upper-class women, assigning faculty mentors, and engaging them in
peer group activities helps them see they are not alone if they
want to pursue their dream."
Research shows Embry-Riddle's program is on target. A 2002
report investigating why women left engineering programs found that
two-thirds who left were earning A's and B's, but were leaving
because they felt isolated from the industry and from other women
at the university.
Some 50 students and eight faculty and staff are part of the
FIRST program’s initial class, begun in September, according
to Cindy Oakley-Paulik, the program’s creator and director of
Embry-Riddle's Women's Center. Freshmen students meet with their
upper-class mentors several times a month in one-on- one and group
settings to address a variety of issues—from registration
help and tutoring, to persistence and life-coaching, to help them
acclimate to university life.
Plans to expand the FIRST program to young freshmen women
majoring in aviation science (professional pilot)—another
area of higher female attrition—are in the works for the Fall
2009 semester, according to Oakley-Paulik.
With the program still in its infancy, success is still
difficult to measure, but Oakley-Paulik says she is already seeing
positive results. As an example, Oakley-Paulik cites one young
woman who initially felt isolated and that Embry-Riddle's aerospace
engineering program was not "a good fit.
"The program has given her the opportunity to gain confidence,
make new friends, and grow academically," said Oakley-Paulik. "In
fact, she's one of only three freshmen campus-wide to be accepted
into the University's Honors program in her first year."