By Thomas K. Grose
ENGINEERING DEPARTMENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS-SAN
ANTONIO HAS DONE AN IMPRESSIVE JOB OF ATTRACTING MINORITIES
TO ITS PROGRAM.
When Griselda Gonzales was 16, she became a mother.
Despite having a baby son to bring up, she remained
a high school honors student and graduated. Eventually,
she got an associate's degree in computer-aided
drafting and design, and for 21/2 years worked for engineers.
"But one of them told me I would never be happy
anywhere until I got a bachelor's degree in engineering,"
she says. "I kind of knew that. I knew I wanted
to do what they were doing." Now 30, Gonzales
is a semester away from earning a degree in mechanical
engineering from the College of Engineering at the University
of Texas-San Antonio (UTSA).
Given her smarts and pluck, it is likely Gonzales
would have succeeded no matter where she lived. Nevertheless,
as a Hispanic woman seeking a degree in engineering,
she was fortunate to have UTSA on her doorstep. UTSA's
college of engineering makes it a priority to seek out
and graduate minority students. That's a daunting
goal but one the college has met. And the result is
a nurturing environment for minorities who are budding
Overall, America's engineering and technology
schools struggle to recruit and graduate minority students.
That's not necessarily for lack of trying. Low
income minority students can present a special set of
challenges. Despite having a lot of raw talent, they're
regularly shortchanged when it comes to learning math
and science—a key requirement for engineering
students—by schools that are financially strapped.
And those who do make it to universities are often forced
to drop out because of economic pressures and the need
to begin earning an income early in life.
Those hurdles make UTSA's record all the more
impressive. In the 2002-03 academic year, the college
conferred 160 bachelor's degrees in engineering
and nearly half of them, 76, went to minority students.
Fifty-eight of those degrees, or 36 percent of the overall
total, were awarded to Hispanic students. "Not
all schools can make that claim," explains Paul
Carter, the college's former development director.
Nationally, 31.7 percent of engineering degrees went
to minorities, but nearly half of those went to Asian
students. Hispanic students nationally garnered only
5.4 percent of the degrees awarded. Meanwhile, the number
of Hispanics graduating in engineering from UTSA should
increase since they now make up about half the current
crop in the department.
Roughly 50 percent of the population of metropolitan
San Antonio is Hispanic, and UTSA believes its student
body should reflect the ethnic composition of the area.
He notes that the population in and around College Station,
Texas, home of Texas A&M University, is very diverse
but its student body doesn't mirror that mix.
About 18 percent of Texas A&M's engineering
graduates are minority, and only 8 percent are Hispanic.
A guiding principle at UTSA is that like attracts
like. "One of the things that attracts minority
students is the college's diversity," Carter
says. "We attract a lot of students who appreciate
the fact that it's a very diverse student population."
Hispanic students interviewed for this story wholeheartedly
agree. Having so many other Hispanic students in the
college was "a comfort factor," says John
Trevino, 23, who graduated in electrical engineering
in December. "That was a big part of why I liked
it there." Moreover, as Dean Zorica Pantic-Tanner
quickly points out, the college and its minority recruitment
efforts also benefit from its burgeoning reputation
for excellence. Its student body numbers 1,800—that's
an increase of 75 percent from 2000 to 2004. "We
are growing very fast and becoming a first choice for
students," she says. Pantic-Tanner is also stepping
up efforts to attract more young women to the college.
Currently, only 13 percent of its graduates are women,
which is less than the national average of 20.4 percent.
High school Help
outreach to local middle and high schools and community
colleges is essential to UTSA's success in attracting
minorities. Area schools help the college identify potential
students, and those who are interested in engineering
are given advice as to what courses they should be taking
in preparation for enrollment at UTSA. Jeanette De Leon,
22, a mechanical engineering senior, recalls being in—and
very much enjoying—a pre-freshman engineering
program run by UTSA. The college also has its students
talk to high schoolers. "They probably talk to
each other better because they're closer in age
and outlook," Pantic-Tanner says.
One San Antonio high school, the Engineering &
Technology Academy at Roosevelt High School, Northeast—a
magnet school that stresses science and math—is
always of keen interest to the university. Those, of
course, are two subjects that many high schools around
the country struggle to teach well. So UTSA holds workshops
for area high school math and science teachers to improve
their teaching skills. And, Pantic-Tanner says, the
college is developing a proposal to send graduate students
into area high schools to teach classes.
All colleges of engineering tend to attract students
who enjoy and excel in science and math. UTSA is no
exception. The students Prism talked to all say those
subjects were their favorites while they were growing
up. De Leon first enrolled at UTSA as a language and
art major. Ultimately, however, she didn't find
that course of study challenging enough. She missed
math and science, so she switched to mechanical engineering
and immediately felt at home. "I needed time to
realize where I best fit in," De Leon explains.
Pantic-Tanner says minority students from disadvantaged
backgrounds tend to be highly committed, too. "They're
motivated to do well in college and get a degree."
Many also think it's important to learn skills
that can benefit the wider community. Certainly that's
high on De Leon's agenda: "I want to give
something back to a society that's given me so
many advantages." And, to be sure, because of
their often constrained economic circumstances, money
is important. "They want to do something that's
exciting and well-paid,"
Pantic-Tanner says. The lure of a very good paycheck
in the future as opposed to an adequate one now "is
part of the appeal," admits Trevino, whose parents
had urged him to forget about going to university and
get a full-time job.
Historically, the most popular engineering discipline
at UTSA has been electrical engineering, and that's
still the case. But mechanical engineering has been
playing catch up in the popularity sweepstakes. Last
fall, the college had 40 electrical engineering students
enrolled and 36 mechanical engineering students. Carter
says that all engineering students tend to be innovators,
habitual tinkerers, the kind of people who as kids would
take things apart and put them back together. "The
creativity of an engineer's mind is something
they bring to the school," Carter says.
Efforts to help area schools improve the teaching
of math and science not withstanding, many minority
students do require a fair amount of remedial help,
particularly in math. Early on, freshmen are quizzed
by the college to determine their strengths and weaknesses.
Carter says the remedial classes are quite successful:
Overall at the university, about 8,000 students receive
supplemental education, and the retention rate is 74
percent. And not only does the college make use of faculty
advisers; it runs an advice center where students are
placed in cohorts with students from similar backgrounds.
First-year lecture classes are supplemented by smaller
recitation groups to ensure that freshmen remain on
Engineering, Early On
"The usual problem for engineering students,"
Pantic-Tanner says, "is that in the first two
years there are a lot of science classes. We want to
make sure they don't lose sight of the bigger
picture, and prevent them from getting discouraged,
which can happen when they can't see the engineering
applications of science." The college works closely
with the chemistry, math, and physics departments to
ensure that teachers in those subjects give engineering
students plenty of in-class engineering examples of
the principles being taught.
The college also regularly brings in alumni minority
students to make classroom presentations. And the dean
is eager to bring in more minority faculty members,
too. "We are slowly changing the face of our faculty."
Right now, minorities make up about 20 to 25 percent
of the college's faculty. That's impressive
compared with many schools around the United States,
but UTSA's goal is for minorities to comprise
half the faculty, again so that it mirrors the surrounding
community. And as one of several students who are also
mothers, Gonzales says the college is very good about
letting them work around childcare time constraints.
Outside the classroom, the student branches of the professional
engineering societies are active in bringing in speakers,
scheduling workshops, and offering skills assessments
and job-placement advice.
UTSA's minority students often need monetary
as well as academic help. "Financial aid plays
a very big role here," Pantic-Tanner says. "The
majority [of students] has some kind of financial support."
Not only does the college offer scholarships; it runs
special workshops to show students what aid is available
and how to apply for it. Pantic-Tanner says that the
college has been aggressive about helping students find
economic assistance. Typically, however, much of the
available money comes in the form of loans, not scholarships,
and that means debt. That's another reason why
well-paying jobs are important. Trevino has $16,000
in student loans to repay, so he was thankful to start
work in January with General Dynamics in Scottsdale,
Ariz. Ultimately, however, he wants to go to graduate
school and is using Project 1,000, a program based at
Arizona State University that allows minority students
to apply free of charge to as many as seven participating
The world of engineering remains dominated by middle-class
white guys, and minorities remain underrepresented in
the workplace. While that may change in time because
of the efforts of schools like UTSA, it's likely
to be a slow process. Meanwhile, many minority students
are prepared for that reality mainly because of previous
work experiences, including internships. "I've
already been exposed to that," says Gonzales,
who would like to own her own business some day. "At
first it was like, Whoa, I'm in a roomful of men.
At first it was a culture shock." Trevino says
that at his internships "the only other Hispanic
people I saw were those who were throwing out the trash."
But if a lack of diversity in engineering is a fact
of life for the time being, it's not something
that fazes the students. Gonzales stresses she neither
wants nor expects special treatment. She's looking
for "mutual respect"—nothing more,
nothing less. And Trevino sees it as more of a challenge
to prove himself and a chance to counter some racial
The students speak readily of their love of the University
of Texas-San Antonio and express a desire to be helpful
as alumni. De Leon says she feels it's her "duty
to come back and do something for [the school]"
once she graduates. Both Gonzales and De Leon hope to
act as mentors to young minority students. "I
want to tell them they can do it," Gonzales says.
De Leon agrees. She wants to tell teenagers "that
the only thing that is stopping them is their fears."
Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in