For a long time, Virginia Tech and other universities have been concerned with statistics on gender and minority distribution within their colleges, and with good reason. For example, in the fall of 1997, only 15.9% of all engineering students were women. This was the lowest proportion of women in any college at Tech. And the numbers for minority students were not any more encouraging. In the same year, 9.3% of undergraduate students were Asian, 4.8% black, 3% international, 1.7% Hispanic, and only 0.2% were American Indian. The faculty demonstrated an even more serious divide- a mere 5.3% of the engineering faculty were women.
Although these statistics were daunting, there was a dedicated effort to improve them. Part of this effort was the CEED office, with Dr. Bevlee Watford at its forefront. The CEED office first opened in 1992, originally known as the Office of Minority Engineering Programs, or OMEP. The first program started was BEST, or Black Engineering Support Teams. Two years later came WEST, Women Engineering Support Teams. Both of these programs were precursors to the CEED Mentoring Programs and the Hypatia Mentoring Programs we have today.
The CEED Office continued to work hard in order to make women and minority engineering students feel more welcome in the field. Hypatia was (and still is) a part of this effort. In 2001, the first group of freshman girls lived in Slusher Hall, working together to understand how to balance difficult classes, life away from home, and all of the other challenges that make up freshman year. Having a community of women experiencing some of the same challenges made it so much easier for these students to achieve their dreams, and this is reflected in the data. Just three years after Hypatia opened its doors, the retention rate for female engineers was already almost 20% better in the community than out of it.
Early Hypatians experienced the same benefits of the community as we do today. While I was researching for this article, Susan Arnold-Christian, the Associate Director of CEED, handed me a paper yearbook from those early years. Half of the writing was incomprehensible due to a string of in-jokes and old memories, but the camaraderie felt by these students shone through. Caroline Anne-Hutchinson wrote, “To Hypatia- The memories I’ve made this year alone are enough to last a lifetime… Being part of Hypatia is priceless.” This is a sentiment still felt by Hypatians today. The community fosters an attitude of collaboration and determination specific to us. That’s what Hypatia was founded on, and that’s how it remains today. As Dr. Watford said in one of her post-grad interviews: “Do not let anyone tell you that you are not capable of being an engineer. If you want it- go after it.”