This school year, the UCLA chapter of the Society of Women Engineers started a new division. Geared toward women graduate students in engineering, UCLA GradSWE (gradswe.seas.ucla.edu) has already offered a full range of programs. Two of GradSWE’s officers, graduate director Nancy Tseng, a Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering, and vice graduate director, Gabriela Bran, a Ph.D. student in mechanical and aerospace engineering, answered questions about GradSWE.

How did UCLA’s GradSWE originate?

Gabriela Bran: Every time I would meet a woman in engineering graduate school, we would both get really excited to have “found” one more female engineer. I met Nancy in one of the SWE mentor/mentee programs that she was organizing, and we started talking about the need for a student group to represent women in engineering graduate programs.
Nancy Tseng: Gabriela and I discussed how some women graduate engineering students are clearly the minority in their department or lab group. At that time, I was the graduate liaison for SWE-UCLA, where my role was to provide mentoring opportunities for undergraduates and to increase interaction between graduate and undergraduate students.
After our discussion, I brought the idea of creating GradSWE to SWE-UCLA’s current president, Amy Lin, and she absolutely loved the idea and supported us. We also received immediate support from Professor Adrienne Lavine, who helped us kick-off GradSWE at our first general meeting in winter quarter, where we attracted about 30 to 40 attendees.
Bran: We also got the opportunity to meet other women, and we each had our own story of how it is to be a woman in engineering, especially in graduate school.

How does UCLA GradSWE differ from SWE?

Nancy Tseng: SWE-UCLA has been focused on providing events for undergraduate students, but graduate life is very different from undergraduate life. For example, previously, recruiters would not realize that their info sessions could attract graduate students and were often not prepared to answer career options for graduate students. Now, recruiters are well aware of this and are gearing their info sessions towards graduate students, as well.
GradSWE is also planning on company site tours just for graduate engineering students, and these tours provide great opportunities for networking and career options. In addition to professional development and networking events, GradSWE also provides social events where graduate students can discuss any issues.

Are UCLA Grad SWE events just for women graduate students in engineering?

Bran: No, they are definitely not! We are looking to get everyone involved. The way that I see it is that as women are in the minority, sometimes we might feel intimidated to go to an event where most of the people are men. GradSWE is trying to create an environment where women are comfortable being themselves, but we also need men to be part of this process because right now they are a majority in our fields. We believe that the issues that we are trying to address are issues that concern both men and women.

What has been the most popular program offered so far this year?
Tseng: The most popular program has actually been the Wine & Cheese Social, where we had about 60 attendees, including both men and women. Other popular programs include our general meeting and Life Lessons Panel.  At the Life Lessons Panel, we had panelists from the UCLA Office of Intellectual Property, UCLA professors, and industry representatives from Citrix and Northrop Grumman. These panelists discussed lessons they learned in their career paths and also talked about how they balanced their personal lives.

What else has the club offered?

Bran: GradSWE also offers volunteering and social opportunities. One of our biggest goals is to increase the number of girls interested in science and engineering, so we have teamed up with some other organizations like AWISE (Advancing Women in Science and Engineering) to mentor girls to try to get them excited about school.
Tseng: Last quarter, the club has also offered lunch time webinar breaks and undergraduate mentoring.
Bran: As for social events, we have planned events like hiking and tea time breaks where graduate students can come together and socialize.

What are your plans for spring quarter, and going forward?

Bran: GradSWE is planning to increase the involvement of our members. Some of the events we have are: Life lessons panel, a hiking trip, three company tours, our big social, and “EmpowHer” day. Information for all these events can be found on our website, gradswe.seas.ucla.edu.
Tseng: For the company site tours, we will go to Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant, General Atomics, and Southern California Edison.  Going forward, we already have planned several other tours, including Northrop Grumman, Sandia National Labs, Mitchell, and JPL.
We also plan on improving our undergraduate mentoring events next school year by providing grad application workshops, where graduate volunteers will help undergraduates with writing essays, getting letters of recommendation, choosing schools, etc.

Can you elaborate on why mentoring is important?

Bran: Mentoring is really important because you can really change someone’s life. You become a role model for younger generations. I recently met a women who was about to transfer to UCLA for engineering. She told me how plenty of people, such as her counselors, and professors, told her not to do engineering because it was not a field for women. We need women out there telling girls that engineering is a field for us and that we are good at it.
Tseng: Like Gaby said, mentoring is a big part of GradSWE. It’s very important that GradSWE members mentor undergraduates and K-12 students because they will play an important role in the future of STEM.
This quarter, we began working with DIY Girls Open Lab to mentor underrepresented middle school students about STEM at the Pacoima Library every first Saturday of each month. DIY Girls Open Lab has already taught lesson plans on 3-D printing, circuits, programming, etc. and at this previous DIY Girls Open Lab event, there was even a 2-year-old girl making robots and squishy circuits!
We also are helping another UCLA group, AWiSE, and SWE-UCLA in their mentoring activities, such as “Wow! That’s Engineering”  Day and EmpowHER Day. On EmpowHER Day, AWiSE plans to bring about 90 girls on campus next month to learn about a variety of STEM fields, including astrophysics, biology and engineering. GradSWE will teach the girls about designing a strong bridge with a bridge competition and wastewater treatment processes