By Angela McManaman
The University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee’s Wilkistar Otieno knows firsthand that young women, especially young women of color, need strong mentors and role models. She knows that need is magnified in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math – STEM for short. So she’s committed to making a difference. A professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering, she advises UWM’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. And through the UWM STEM-Inspire Program, she mentors women and students of Latino, African- American and other backgrounds, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. It’s all part of enhancing their experience at UWM, one of the nation’s top research universities.
“What I have seen,” Otieno says, “is that these students may not pursue engineering because of a lack of access to STEM opportunities in their prior educational experiences. Or, they may face a lack of role models.”
Women account for less than 15 percent of the engineers working today, and less than 20 percent of college engineering majors are women. The desire to grow those numbers is part of what drives Otieno’s call to mentorship, which also includes her participation in the UWM National Science Foundation Engineering and Computer Science Scholars Program and K-12 STEM outreach projects.
She wears many other hats. In addition to teaching and designing graduate and undergraduate courses in engineering, she conducts long-term research projects with top Wisconsin companies like Rockwell Automation and Harley-Davidson. All the while, she works so her mentees can follow similar paths in their chosen fields.
UWM’s STEM-Inspire group pairs every participating STEM major with a faculty mentor, peer mentor and a tutor. Partially funded by the Wisconsin Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, or WiscAMP, it provides opportunities like internships, STEM lectures, workshops, research opportunities and library study nights. This school year, the program has 18 participants, and you can learn more about the program at uwm. edu/steminspire.
Stem-INSPIRE mentors like Otieno seek to build a community among those students, whose majors cam range from mechanical or computer engineering to biological sciences or architecture. Doing so cultivates a sense of belonging, which maximizes their chances for academic and professional success.
It’s the kind of community that Otieno sought 20 years ago at Moi University in Eldoret, Kenya. She was one of only three women studying mechanical and production engineering there – out of 40 total students – during her undergraduate years. She worked closely with a small group of other underrepresented students, eager to fulfill her dream of becoming an engineer and educator.
“I had to work a lot harder than I needed to just to make the point that I belonged in mechanical engineering,” she says. She took seven to eight courses per semester, sleeping five to six hours a night.
Today, she participates in corporate research and training programs with industry partners who rely on UWM as a major educator of science and technology professionals. Her graduate students are involved in this research, enhancing their skillset as future engineers and educators.
That’s the path Priyanka Pillai is on. In May 2017, she earned her master’s degree from UWM’s College of Engineering & Applied Science, and Otieno’s mentorship played a key role in that success.
English is Pillai’s second language, and she worried her English writing skills would hinder work on her master’s thesis. Otieno stepped in as a writing coach, giving Pillai additional articles to read and reviewing early drafts of her writing.
“Dr. Otieno made me a better writer,” Pillai says, “because she is always giving her students the push to try something different.”
It worked. Today, Pillai is a supplier quality engineer and thinking about pursing her own doctoral degree in engineering.