Correction and update appended
Jordan Davis ’14, an African American majoring in electrical and computer engineering, was the first student from his high school to attend an Ivy League university. Upon arriving at Cornell’s College of Engineering, he said he wondered, “Are we meant to be here?”
“Looking around, I guess I thought, I may be one of one or two black people in the room,” Davis said. “As a freshman, I wasn’t sure I was good enough.”
Although Davis said that, with time, he has found that “people will accept you based on what you know, rather than what you look like,” he said that increasing diversity in the engineering college is crucial to bolstering the confidence and success of minority engineers at the University.
Across Cornell, underrepresented minorities — African American, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, Hispanic and Native American students — make up 17.1 percent of undergraduates, according to the fall 2011 enrollment report. But at the engineering college, only 11.8 percent of students identify themselves as underrepresented minorities — a figure that administrators and students said was troubling.
Some students, like Richard Dansoh ’13, said they stick out in lecture halls among a sea of Caucasian and Asian faces.
Dansoh, an African American operations research and information engineering major, said that, at times, he has felt that “professors may be pleasantly surprised if I’m talking to them and come off as being articulate and well-versed in the subject.”
“Maybe they’re impressed that I’m an African American and in engineering,” he said. “Sometimes, they can be a little more interested in me” than they would be in the average student.
It can also be difficult to shake off preconceived notions of ability and merit, students said, especially in engineering — a field where admissions officers are committed to increasing the number of minorities at their schools.
“You have to fight the stereotype that you do belong where you are,” said Brandon Gainer ’13, an African American chemical engineering major. “You have to show to the professors that you can perform well in their classes.”
Although Sara Hernandez, director of Diversity Programs in Engineering, warned against drawing universal conclusions for why underrepresented minorities leave engineering, she said that for these students, entering a college where they are “surrounded by the top students of the world in a very rigorous curriculum” can be especially challenging as “one of a few [minority students] in the classroom.”
“It can be difficult if you confront situations in which you think people are making certain assumptions about you — about your preparedness, your background or you as an individual,” Hernandez said.
For minority students who are also female, the feelings of isolation can be compounded. Women make up 35 percent of engineering students but fewer than twenty percent of students in some majors within the college, according to fall 2011 data from the engineering college’s registrar.
For Erica Barnett ’13, an electrical and computer engineering major, being female and a minority in Cornell engineering has been a “challenge.”
“I’ve learned to accept the situation and deal with this circumstance the best way I can,” Barnett said.
Barnett added that some of her close friends from high school who are engineers at historically black colleges and universities have had “reflections on classroom experiences [that] are far more positive than the reflections I hear from other black engineers on campus.”
Being one of just a few minority student engineers can also be an isolating experience, Gainer said, because the small number of minorities who can lead people to not connect with other students.
Given the rigor of Cornell’s engineering curriculum — at Duffield Hall, for instance, a group of engineers huddled together over a problem set is a common sight — students who do not feel like they are able to work with their peers may struggle in their classes.
“A lot of minorities may not feel as comfortable approaching other students; they may feel singled out and not part of the community,” Dansoh said. “But in engineering, it’s a very big deal to be able to work with your peers ... because often you’ll be working with each other.”
Gainer agreed, saying, “If you don’t really feel like you belong with a certain type of people, it can be detrimental to your GPA. That can push you out to not complete your degree.”
The graduation rate of minorities in STEM fields lags behind those of their Caucasian and Asian peers. At Cornell, while 81 percent of freshmen entering the engineering college will graduate, only 75 percent of underrepresented minorities will graduate from the college in five years, according to Hernandez.
This “gap,” Hernandez said, is “clearly … of concern to the college.”
“We are employing strategies to support the persistence and success of URM students in engineering,” Hernandez said.
The current disparity makes it all the more crucial that Cornell continue to recruit minorities in engineering, students said. When students have mentors to look up to, they can be more likely to succeed in engineering.
“I know from personal experience that it’s a lot easier when you see someone who you can look up to as a mentor,” said Denzel Bridges ’13, a materials science and engineering major. “For some people, it helps if they see someone who looks like them to talk about not just academic issues but also non-academic things as well.”
Several students said they found mentorship through the University’s outreach programs. Barnett, for instance, said that Diversity Programs in Engineering, the National Society of Black Engineers’ Cornell chapter and C.U. EMPower mentoring program have been “great resources [that] have created a sense of family and acceptance for me within engineering at Cornell.”
These organizations, Hernandez said, are “phenomenal.”
“They do a lot to support peers and help them have a sense of community — both academic and social — within the college and the University,” she said.
While Hernandez said that “we definitely want to be doing better than what we [currently] are,” she noted that outreach and recruitment efforts have, in part, already increased diversity at the college — bringing twice the number of underrepresented minorities to Cornell in the Class of 2015 than the college did six years ago.
“It’s still not a huge percentage of our students, but there are more students from very diverse backgrounds, and that’s starting to change the environment and composition of the college,” she said.
Accompanying increased minority recruitment in engineering, Barnett said, “diversity of thought, backgrounds and problem-solving techniques translates into better solutions and better finished products.”
As for whether the grind of derivations, proofs and MATLAB at Cornell is worth it, Dansoh said he thinks that “after doing this, I feel like we can do anything.”
“Coming in freshman year, it was a very hard struggle — and is even in many ways still a struggle — but I’ve grown so much as a person, and the idea of more minorities coming into this lifestyle, track and path really excites me,” Dansoh said.
By increasing recruitment, retention and mentoring for underrepresented minorities in engineering, Dansoh said, the University can both increase diversity in the field and help grow the next generation of scientific leaders.
“To have that type of hope toward your future is something I feel like a lot of minorities could be empowered by,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that five-year graduation rate for under-represented minorities in the College of Engineering is 25 percent. In fact, 75 percent of these students graduate in five years.
Update: Information posted on the website of the Cornell College of Engineering contained inaccurate and dated statistics, according to administrators. The numbers have since been changed.