This year, Computer Science and Engineering Assistant Professor Emily Hand developed an award to recognize the contributions of graduate students in the department who strive to foster inclusive practices in the College and across campus. The International Women’s Day Award for Inclusive Practices provides a $500 prize, as well as a plaque.
“The goal of the award is to create more incentive for students and faculty to develop a more inclusive environment,” Hand said. “This is important because computer science is not a very diverse field, and we want to change that.”
The inaugural recipient, Autumn Cuellar, is a member of the College of Engineering Diversity Committee and serves on the Disability Resource Center’s neurodiversity working group. Through her work and service, she is a strong advocate for Universal Design for Learning (UDL) concepts.
“The neurodiversity working group is trying to bring awareness to neurodiversity,” Cuellar said. “We’re trying to show how universal design for learning can help everyone in school—not just people with disabilities, but everyone.”
The need for the implementation of UDL principles on campus was immediately apparent for Cuellar. As a first-year student, she began working with Associate Professor Dave Feil-Seifer, whose lab, at the time, used a number code system to regulate entrance. Because Cuellar has cerebral palsy, this system effectively barred her access to needed resources.
“You had to put in a number code to open the door, but with my disability, this was not easy to do,” Cuellar said. “Dave was amazing and changed his lock to a card reader. Now, I saw in the new building [the William N. Pennington Engineering Building], all the labs have card readers. I don’t think that’s related, but it is really helpful.”
Now serving as Cuellar’s M.S. advisor, Feil-Seifer sits on the College of Engineering Diversity Committee with Cuellar. Of Cuellar’s impact on campus, he said, “When Autumn speaks, we all listen. When we don't, we should have. She shows us how to include a broader group than we have before. The best thing for all of us to do is to let her lead and hope to keep up. She's able to tell us that there are doors that are literally closed for our best students.”
For Cuellar, the pursuit of inclusivity is founded in a desire to allow everyone to reach their full potential and offer their contributions on campus and beyond.
“Bringing in diversity and including everyone will bring more knowledge to the field and make it a better place.”
“Inclusive practices are important because everyone should be able to do what they put their minds to do. Their success shouldn’t be based on what they look like or what they are like. It should be based on their skills and knowledge,” she said. “Bringing in diversity and including everyone will bring more knowledge to the field and make it a better place.”
While the inaugural award was granted to a graduate student, Hand hopes to increase the impact of the program by eventually including other groups within the College: “I would like to expand the awards to include faculty, staff, and undergraduates. We want to make our students know they are important to us by recognizing their achievements.”