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Thursday, Sep 28, 2023

CSUN Snags $5.5 million Grant to Support Diversity

Luis Carbajo remembers the times he and his friends tried to get into the tutoring lab at California State University, Northridge. It was packed with 60 to 70 students, all vying for time with a handful of computer science and math tutors. “Me and my friends, we helped each other, or if we really needed the tutor, we’d just get in line and wait,” Carbajo said. His perseverance has paid off. The 27-year old Peruvian native from Sylmar is graduating in December with a master’s of science in electrical engineering from the CSUN College of Engineering. When he does, he will be one of a rare breed. Only 1.8 percent of engineers in this country are Hispanic, according to the 2008 U.S. Census. Mostly, engineering remains a white man’s profession. CSUN is working to change that. Armed with a new $5.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education Hispanic Serving Institutions STEM Program, the school’s College of Engineering and Computer Science hopes to not only draw more Hispanic students into the profession, but also to give them the kind of one-on-one tutoring and assistance that assures success. “It’s not that hard for us to attract them — 40 percent of our students are Hispanic,” said S. K. Ramesh, dean of the college. “But engineering is a tough discipline. We have to give them help and assistance to be successful.” The stakes are high. Only 6.6 percent of the school’s Hispanic students graduate within five years, compared to 40 percent of white students, said Ramesh. If they fall by the wayside, not only has the state lost its investment, employers lose the chance to diversify their workforce. Valley companies such as Northrop Grumman Corp., Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory say it’s vital their engineering workforce reflects the demographics of the Valley. “You cannot ignore the huge percentage of people from your population for the resources and talent you need,” said Charles Volk, vice president and chief technologist at Northrop Grumman Corp. Navigation Systems. “That’s self destructive.” Failure also costs the Hispanic community. The unemployment rate in some heavily Hispanic Valley cities such as Lancaster and Palmdale are above 15 percent, higher than the state, national and overall San Fernando Valley averages, according to the California Employment Development Department. The best job opportunities are in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, and educating the local population, which is 42 percent Hispanic, in these fields is critical, Ramesh said. The grant will be shared with two community colleges — Glendale College and College of the Canyons. Together the schools will choose 120 students — 60 in the first year and 60 in the second — to participate in the program. These students will be paired with faculty and peer mentors, both of whom will be given a monthly stipend of $750 for their work with the students. In addition, the students will get a stipend from the grant. Those who begin at the community colleges will receive $1,200 year; those at CSUN will get $2,400. Each of the 120 students will also get a career advisor who will help them hone their job skills, and pair the students with internship opportunities. While $5.5 million may seem like a lot of money to educate 120 students, it does not reflect the full cost of educating an engineering student, Ramesh said, which can easily top $100,000. The grant comes out to $45,833 per student, or just over $9,000 per year per student over the five years of the grant. Ramesh hopes that when the grant runs out, local employers will pick up the slack and support students. Area employers say they recognize the importance of the program. Many Valley technology companies already spend considerable money and time supporting underrepresented engineering candidates in local schools. Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, for example, supports area students with both scholarships and internships, said Munir Sindir, director of engineering and technical disciplines. The company offers 20 internships a year, some 70 percent of which are usually awarded to underrepresented minorities, including women, he said. Interns are paid the going rate of a first-year engineer, Sindir said. Of those who participate, all wind up eventually graduating and getting jobs, he said. In fact, the company hires many of them and does better than most at drawing Hispanics. Of 650 P&WR engineers in California, 7.9 percent have self-identified as Hispanic. Northrup Grumman, which employs 2,000 people at its Woodland Hills facility, has created social groups at the company to welcome people of diverse backgrounds. “It’s hard for first arrivers to come into the field and feel accepted,” Volk said. Carbajo said it’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. “If I can do it, anyone can. And if you do, the sky is the limit.”

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