Vanessa and Victoria Liera, Class of 2022, share their experiences as electrical engineering students and co-founders of the Club of Future Female Electrical Engineers (COFFEE).
Home for us is Panorama City, CA in the San Fernando Valley. We are first-generation college students with no prior experience or exposure to electrical engineering. We both chose this major because we both enjoyed a robotics class that we took in middle school and we had an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. Being Hispanic women in this field has made us feel different both in a good and bad way. We feel proud and blessed to be able to attend a university and pursue a degree for ourselves and for our family. This win for us is a win for our community as well.
Establishing the Club of Future Female Electrical Engineers
Electrical Engineering has one of the lowest proportions of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women: 12.4 percent last year, down from 14 percent the year before, with computer engineering at 9.2 percent. There is a lack of recruitment and retention in both majors for women. Our question: what is being done to recruit or retain women in these majors?
Since freshman year, we struggled to feel connected to our engineering community and at times we felt like we didn’t belong. There were not many women in electrical engineering and there were even less Latinas in our classes. Spring quarter of our freshman year, we both started getting more involved in organizations that would benefit us and our field of study such as Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Chicano and Latino Engineers and Scientists Society (CALESS) and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). These organizations were great for professional development and inclusiveness, but we still felt like being a woman in electrical engineering needed more than that. It wasn’t until we met and grew a bond with a group of women in our Circuits 1 class that we finally felt like we weren’t alone. School finally felt bearable and even if we struggled, we struggled together. From this point on, we knew we wanted to create this supportive and encouraging environment for all women in electrical and computer engineering.
By the end of our freshman year, COFFEE was an idea formed by other co-founders, but it wasn’t until fall quarter of our sophomore year that we really pushed for it to happen. We officially co-founded COFFEE with Veronica Contreras the beginning of Winter Quarter 2020. We wanted every woman in electrical and computer engineering to feel like they belonged and that even if the college experience brought challenges, they wouldn’t have to go through them alone. Being a support system for future generations of women who want to pursue electrical or computer engineering is our biggest motivation to keep improving COFFEE and building it to its fullest potential.
COFFEE means a lot to the both of us and we believe it is the support system everyone needs. We hope to create a larger, more comfortable community within the department, and hopefully achieve our goal of retention and encouraging more women to pursue male-dominated fields. We also hope to encourage more minorities into STEM fields. COFFEE makes it less difficult to deal with imposter syndrome because it is a safe space. We want to support any incoming and returning women in the field who may be struggling or second-guessing themselves or their positions. This is our way of reminding women that they can do it. Women are just as capable and necessary in these fields.
Becoming Engineering Ambassadors
We chose to become Engineering Ambassadors to not only represent the College of Engineering, but our community as well. As Engineering Ambassadors, we get to go on live chats with students and parents interested in the College of Engineering at UC Davis. Becoming Engineering Ambassadors meant more to us because we can show incoming students that engineering is an option for everybody and that pursuing a career in engineering can be done.
There are little to no Latinx or Hispanics in electrical engineering, or engineering in general. Most of the time we believe this is because no one encourages or tells these students—minorities—that they can major and do well in engineering. It isn’t something that is commonly brought up as a career choice. Many of them don’t even know what engineering is, especially if they come from a family that doesn’t know much about engineering either. If we show our faces more and share our stories, maybe we can give more women and minorities the confidence to pursue engineering. We are doing it for the people who feel like they can’t and/or couldn’t.
Empowering Women in STEM
It definitely can be intimidating being one of twelve women in your class...in a class of 90 students. You learn that gender discrimination is something you have to battle. We’ve had people discredit or dismiss our input/ideas in a few classes because we are one of the few women in a group full of men. This didn’t happen on an extreme level, but it’s important to acknowledge that it exists. Some people do not even realize that they are contributing to this until they are confronted about it and that’s something we should acknowledge as well. To be women in STEM means not letting anyone, or anything, determine our path for us. It means strength. It means courageousness. It means that we are a part of the change. We are doing our part to bridge the gap and we hope to continue to do this by encouraging young women to pursue careers in STEM.