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September 20, 2010
By John Trent
Although the cast of student characters changes on a yearly basis, the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program has reached a point where old voices counsel new participants, where past experience sheds light on how this year’s freshman members of WISE can cope with the demands of college.
Now in its fourth year, WISE, a living/learning community of 36 freshman, is still focused on ensuring that its all-female membership finds persistence and ultimate success in science, mathematics and engineering majors.
Yet there is a feeling now that, like a fourth-year student entering her senior year, the WISE program has matured in ways that have made it one of the campus’ most important living/learning opportunities.
“We’re finding that our WISE students are not only staying in areas like science, they’re staying together, as friends and classmates once they’ve left WISE,” said Gina Tempel, the program’s director and associate dean in the College of Science. WISE members are first-year students who make a one-year commitment to the program. “Students in this program are developing lifelong friendships.”
Students involved in the WISE program major in a variety of subjects, running the gamut from community health science to biochemistry to biology to computer science.
A way to connect
Natasha Monga, a sophomore from Reno majoring in biology, could not agree more.
In late August, as the school year was just beginning, Monga recalled what it had been like for her in fall 2009, when she was a freshman and not quite sure what her time in WISE would hold.
“At this point last year, it was the day before our retreat,” she said. “I was very nervous, because I hadn’t met any new people on campus yet. I wasn’t sure if WISE was the right place to find them.”
WISE’s retreat to Lake Tahoe — the group has regular group activities, with all participants living as roommates in Argenta Hall — convinced Monga that she had made the right decision.
“The retreat turned out really well,” she said. “I was very lucky. I had a great roommate. She’s actually my roommate again this year, along with another girl from WISE. What Dr. Tempel was saying about lifelong friendships is very true. WISE really does help.”
Gabi Aguirre, a freshman from Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, said she signed up for WISE this year because it gave her the opportunity to “study with people who share the same dreams as I do.”
“We all have the same goals and aspirations,” Aguirre, a biology major, said.
Even in a short period of time, Aguirre said WISE has been everything she expected.
“You can study with these girls … they become your friends,” said Aguirre, who hopes one day to become a pediatrician. “You all share the same aspirations. I’ve already made some great friends.”
Mollie Langston, a freshman from Visalia, Calif., and also a biology major like Aguirre (“We’re like twins,” Aguirre said with a laugh), said the sense of camaraderie in the program is strong.
“The people in the program are there for you,” she said. “They’re across the hall, they’re down the hall, they’re in the same room with you as a roommate. Everyone in the program is there to help. We’re all in the same boat. We’re taking a lot of the same classes, which is very helpful to all of us.”
Finding role models
Tempel said the energy of the participants is something that helps keep her energized as well.
“There weren’t that many faculty … there weren’t a lot of (female) role models (in the sciences) when I was in college,” said Tempel, who graduated from Ball State University in the mid-1970s. “We’ve brought women professionals to campus to talk to the students, and we’ve worked to bring in more female faculty members to serve as mentors to the WISE students. We’ve also made an effort to bring in some youth, so it’s not just senior faculty that are involved with the program as mentors.”
One such example is faculty mentor Sarah Cummings, lecturer and coordinator of the organic chemistry lab in the Department of Chemistry. At the group’s August mixer in the lobby of the new Davidson Mathematics and Science Center, Cummings noted that as an undergraduate at Haverford University in Ardmore, Pa., she had been involved with a program similar to WISE.
“This is something,” she told the program’s members, “that is very important to me.”
What becomes obvious when speaking to any of the WISE members is the front-and-center role science, or engineering, or math, will play as their academic careers unfold at Nevada.
Realizing a dream
To many of the students, a “WISE”-style major isn’t just a major.
Morgan McCord, a freshman from Reno’s McQueen High, plans to major in biology. She eventually wants to study the oceans or marine biology.
From an early age, she’s known that science has been her best subject – a subject that comes alive each times she studies it.
“In elementary school, I always said science was my favorite subject,” she said. “It’s just always been really interesting to me. I think this should be pretty fun (being in WISE). I’ll be meeting people that I can study with, and make some good friends.”
Langston knew WISE was for her the minute she heard about it.
“I checked a box that asked was I interested in a living/learning community,” she said. “And then they contacted me and asked me about it and I said, ‘Sure, of course, I’d love to do that.’ I mean, who wouldn’t want to be part of a program where you get to know new people, and that will help you with your academics?”
Added Cassie Parr, a freshman from Minden, Nev., majoring in biology: “I just thought the program sounded like a good way to make some friends and to learn about science.”
And so far, Parr was asked, has it worked?
“Oh yeah,” she said. She pointed to several WISE members around her. “I’ve met all of these lovely ladies so far.”
The wise veteran of WISE, Monga, who is also an ASUN Senator from the College of Science, said she isn’t surprised when she hears such an enthusiastic response from WISE’s members.
“You’re coming to a university with 12,700 other (undergraduate) students, and you’re looking for a small group of people that you’re automatically going to click with,” she said. “And the fact that all these girls are in similar majors, and you’re going to have the same classes with them, that’s comforting. I know it was for me. I hope it will be the same thing for the girls who are in the program this year.”
John Trent is senior editor of news and features in the Office of Integrated Marketing.