Many of the issues faced by minority groups in Penn Engineering are not unique to Penn; in fact, many of them are societal problems compounded in a high-pressure environment like Penn. We have identified lack of mentors, feelings of self doubt and impostor syndrome, lack of support for first generation low income students, as well as lack of consideration for some underrepresented groups as the main problems facing Penn Engineering with regards to diversity and inclusion. Additionally, the issues faced by different minority groups vary widely.
There are a number of broad actions that Penn Engineering could take to ameliorate these issues; A few of the major suggestions that EDAB recommends implementing include increasing faculty and student diversity, implementing support programs for first generation, low income students to afford basic academic resources, emphasizing use of resources such as Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and developing a pre-orientation program for incoming freshmen in underrepresented groups. Additionally, we strongly recommend that administration continue and expand their communication with minority student groups in order to identify and address issues unique to those groups.
Lack of Faculty Diversity
Faculty diversity is a concern that has come up time and time again; as Penn’s undergraduate population becomes more diverse, Penn Engineering’ faculty has yet to reflect change of the same magnitude. In particular, there has only been marginal improvements over the past few years with regard to underrepresented minority (URM) faculty representation: From 2011 to 2016 there has only been a half percent (0.5%) increase in URM faculty in Penn Engineering as a whole. One student remarked that, “It’s really strange to say that you’ve been learning and you’ve been in college for three years and never had a professor that looks like you… There’s already a distance between students and professors and that can only widen the distance.”
Lack of Classroom Diversity
In 2017, only 9.7% of Penn Engineering graduates identified as African-American or Latino. It is important to note that diversity in the classroom has shown to be correlated with better performance from minority groups, as well as being beneficial to students of all demographics., For example, poor URM representation leads to lack of mentors and role models for students, and these people play a critical role for any student in engineering, regardless of identity. With lack of classroom diversity, we start to see mental health issues arise with impostor syndrome and self-doubt in students. Impostor syndrome describes a concept wherein an individual perpetually feels that he or she is “a fraud”, unable to internalize his or her achievements by attributing them to luck. In terms of underrepresentation of minority races, one student remarked that “Looking around, I guess I thought, I may be one of one or two black people in the room… As a freshman, I wasn’t sure I was good enough.” Another student remarked that “You have to fight the stereotype that you do belong where you are… You have to show to the professors that you can perform well in their classes.” Based on a survey conducted in March 2018, we can start to see impostor syndrome manifest in female Penn Engineering students as well.
The Penn Engineering Diversity Plan from 2012 notes a commitment to a new pre-orientation program for underrepresented minorities akin to the Advancing Women in Engineering pre-orientation. As of 2018, six years later, this pre-orientation has yet to be implemented. Aside from the AWE pre-orientation program, there exists no other pre-orientation programs in place to support students from other underrepresented groups such as first generation low-income families, and the LGBTQ community.
First-generation, low-income (FGLI) students are students who are the first in their families to attend college, and/or those who come from low-income households. They make up a minority of the undergraduate population overall; 12.4% of the class of 2021 is first-generation. FGLI students may face many difficulties at college, particularly at Penn, where the median family income of a student is $191,500, and 71% of undergraduates come from the top 20%. The 2012 Penn Engineering Diversity Plan included no mention of FGLI students. FGLI students face a major problem of needing to work more hours in comparison to their peers in order to support themselves throughout college. FGLI students may also have difficulty affording basic academic resources like textbooks, food, housing, trips back home during breaks, or professional clothing for job opportunities.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer
One of the difficulties in assessing the state of diversity and inclusion regarding LGBTQ students and faculty is that data on LGBTQ identification is not easily obtained or tracked. In the 2012 Penn Engineering Diversity Plan, the only line regarding LGBTQ community members reads: “Anecdotal information on representation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) faculty shows that we are well represented in the faculty and within the leadership of the school.”
Therefore, there still remains several areas of improvement to better support URM students. To tackle these pain points, EDAB recommends that Penn Engineering investigate faculty representation, set up a formal mentorship programs for students struggling to find mentors like them, implementing the long discussed pre-orientation program for URM students, as well as instigating a support system for FGLI students who may struggle with affording basic academic tools and resources. Penn Engineering should also take into consideration more heavily the ramifications of URM and LGBTQ faculty members when developing future Diversity Plans.