Villanova graduates a record number of female engineers

Villanova engineering graduates (from left) Hillary Guardo, Rebecca Weigand, and Christine Alizzi.
Villanova engineering graduates (from left) Hillary Guardo, Rebecca Weigand, and Christine Alizzi. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 21, 2013

Calling a typical American engineering school a boys' club would be an understatement - on average, women make up 18.2 percent of engineering undergraduates nationwide.

It's a statistic that hasn't gone unnoticed, with colleges and universities across the country scrambling to draw more women and minorities into engineering majors. Villanova University is no exception - and on Sunday, 31.4 percent of the engineering students who crossed the stage at graduation in Radnor were female.

In 2003, women made up just 19 percent of the engineering school's graduating class.

Officials say that spike in female graduates - the university's largest ever - is the result of a strategy adopted in 2006 by College of Engineering dean Gary Gabriele. It involved reaching out to high school students before they even applied, targeting girls strong in math and the sciences who may not have even considered an engineering major.

"Getting them to apply is the key thing. Getting them to think about engineering is the key thing," Gabriele said.

It also involved hiring more female faculty members.

"I think one of the biggest things is providing role models," said Amy Fleischer, a Villanova engineering professor who earned her undergraduate degree from the university in 1991. "The more you can get women in the field - being role models and professor, putting them in front of middle schoolers and high schoolers - the more you can really see yourself wanting to pursue that profession."

At Villanova 22 years ago, Fleischer didn't have a single female engineering professor. She drew support instead from friends in the field, women who were bucking trends long before universities began concerted efforts to attract women to math and science fields.

"The more people you can get contributing your ideas - it just brings a different perspective to the workplace. If you look at the old Apollo photographs, you see nothing but white men," she said, laughing. "You've got a much better perspective now."

These days, women going into engineering at Villanova say next to no one is surprised they're interested in the field. Many are following in the footsteps of mothers or older sisters. And Villanova's trend toward a more diverse engineering school is holding - the school's incoming freshman class in 2012 was also 31 percent female.

"It's definitely a really great field to get into - it just opens so many doors for you," said Rebecca Weigand, 21, of Jackson, N.J. "It's not as intimidating as people make it out to be."

Weigand is staying at Villanova to complete a graduate degree - "grad school gets even smaller for female engineers, but I've never been intimidated by that," she said.

"You meet a few people along the way that question why you're there," said Hillary Guardo, 22, of Flemington, N.J., who will start a nuclear reactor engineering job with the Navy after graduation. "But then on the other side, you'll meet more people out there who are excited to have women diving in."


Contact Aubrey Whelan at 610-313-8112, awhelan@philly.com, or follow on Twitter at @aubreyjwhelan.

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