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Female STEM students band together in new campus group at York College

September 27, 2018
Women in Science and Engineering group

It wasn’t your typical ladies night. Sure, there was plenty of food, drinks and, of course, ladies.

But the drinks were non-alcoholic, and the ladies were more interested in the room full of tools and machines than the snacks.

All in all, Dr. Inci Ruzybayev, who organized the first Ladies Night in the Machine Shop at York College of Pennsylvania, says it was a success.

Engineering solutions

The idea was born a year ago.

Dr. Ruzybayev teaches Physics to Computer Science and Engineering students at York College, where women are the minority. She knows the unique challenges of being one of a handful of women in a classroom full of men from her own time in college, and she wanted to help her students who were going through the same thing.

So, she created WISE, Women in Science and Engineering.

Their first meeting was kind of like a support group. They commiserated over common struggles, celebrated small victories, and began to look for solutions.

“We’re problem solvers,” Dr. Ruzybayev says.

As the women talked about the challenges they’d faced, Dr. Ruzybayev picked up on a common place of conflict — the machine shop.

The stories told by the women were frustratingly similar.

When faced with a project that involved using tools in the school machine shop, male students would assume their female classmates didn’t know how to use the tools and would step in and take over the work for them.

It made the women feel like maybe they didn’t belong, like they constantly had to prove themselves.

“OK,” Dr. Ruzybayev remembers thinking, “So what can we do about this?”

Changing the culture

The premise was simple enough.

Give new female students an opportunity to become familiar with the equipment in a supportive environment, so when they need to use the tools for class, they can feel confident.

Many male students grew up with their father showing them how to use tools, Dr. Ruzybayev says. But for a lot of female students, that wasn’t the case.

Ladies Night was a chance for those female students to get comfortable with the equipment without being judged.

“These tools don’t belong to men,” Dr. Ruzybayev says.

Watching her students gain confidence working with the machines, Dr. Ruzybayev felt proud. Former students who learned of the event said they wish there had been this kind of event when they were in school.

It’s just one small part of how Dr. Ruzybayev and her colleagues are trying to change the culture in their fields.

Finding support

There are several upper-class female students who are rocking the machine shop, Dr. Ruzybayev says.

But in order for more students to follow in their footsteps, they have to make it that far. That’s why retention is one of the primary goals of WISE.

Dr. Ruzybayev wants her students to feel like they belong. But it’s not just about her supporting them; she wants to forge connections between the students themselves.

A student might be the only woman in her major, but now with WISE she’s connected to other women in Computer Science and Engineering who might not be taking the exact same classes but have similar experiences and can relate.

That support might be the difference between a student flourishing or dropping out of the program.

Looking ahead

Members of WISE meet at least once a month. Dr Ruzybayev hopes the newfound support will help attract more women to the field.

“Women are underrepresented in this major,” she says. “My ultimate goal: I want this 50-50.”

Increased diversity is better for all students — male and female, she says.

As the group grows, Dr. Ruzybayev hopes to use it to support younger women who are considering majoring in Computer Science and Engineering. Maybe WISE could host them on campus for a day or perhaps help them with projects.

But for now, her main goal is to support the female students she currently teaches, and to connect them so they can support each other.

“We understand that we’re stronger together,” Dr. Ruzybayev says.

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