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Theresa Maldonado

In Search of a Strategy

NSF’s “potpourri of programs” to boost diversity isn’t working, a division director finds.

By Kathryn Masterson

Theresa Maldonado vividly recalls her first encounter with male dominance in technical subjects. She was one of three women in a Georgia community college calculus course. When the professor called on a female classmate and she couldn’t answer his question, he excoriated all three of them, shouting, “You women belong in the kitchen!” By the next time the class met, the other two women were gone. The instructor and other students all looked at her as if they couldn’t believe she was still there.

Maldonado stuck with math, getting straight A’s, and the same professor later steered her toward Georgia Tech, where she eventually earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and embarked on an academic career. But the experience showed her how the culture in some college departments works against helping female, minority, or first-generation college students persist in a challenging field. And now, as director of the Division of Engineering Education and Centers (EEC) at the National Science Foundation, she is in a position to tackle the problem at a national level.

“Since I have some experience with the issue, it would be a shame not to look into it,” says Maldonado, the first in her Mexican-American family to go to college. The EEC, which accounts for about 14 percent of the Engineering Directorate’s budget, funds university engineering research centers as well as a range of education programs. In addition to diversity, it stresses expanding engineering opportunities for veterans.

Maldonado knows things are better now than when she was a student in the late 1970s and the 1980s. More women are going into certain engineering fields, such as environmental and biomedical engineering. Some universities are doing a good job increasing the number of women and people of color on their faculties. And there are programs dedicated to increasing underrepresented groups in science and math.

But despite the millions already spent to increase diversity, national statistics on the number of women and minorities in engineering have changed very little. Meanwhile, security-related industries are calling for more American engineers, she says, and if the profession doesn’t figure out how to attract and retain women or people of color, who will soon be the majority, “we are going to be in trouble.”

“I think we need to break down the approach we’re taking,” Maldonado says. Rather than the “potpourri of programs” to boost female and minority representation that exist now, Maldonado believes a unified, more holistic strategy might show better results. “I don’t know what that strategy is,” Maldonado says. But her own journey from first-generation college student to engineering professor, associate dean at Texas A&M, and NSF division director is testimony to the importance of mentors in helping women and minorities succeed in engineering, both as students and as junior faculty members.

Besides the community college professor who pointed her toward Georgia Tech and engineering, Maldonado credits a registrar at Georgia Tech who helped make sure almost all of her coursework from the community college transferred, as well as a friendly undergraduate adviser who helped her feel more comfortable.

“Students need information and need to feel like they belong there,” she says. “It sounds simple, but it’s really important.”

At Georgia Tech, she made three good friends, all male – two African-American and one white – with whom she studied. She also found a mentor in a white electrical engineering professor who kept writing letters urging her to come back to Georgia Tech and earn a Ph.D. after she left to work at Bell Laboratories. She did. And when she had a baby while completing her dissertation, he held the child during their meetings.

“I tell minority students, you don’t have to find somebody who looks like you [as a suitable mentor],” she says. “You may wait a long time.” That advice says a lot about how far U.S. engineering needs to go before reaching Maldonado’s definition of success — when diversity “is second nature and we don’t even think about it anymore.”


Kathryn Masterson is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

NSF & iStock Photo


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