A Conversation With Multicultural Engineering Program Director Lauren Griggs
Dr. Lauren Griggs is heavily involved in the engineering community at Penn State. Namely, she serves as director of both the Multicultural Engineering Program and Clark Scholars Program, as well as a professor and advisor in the College of Engineering.
Griggs is also a Black woman in a STEM field, where she believes women and people of color are in the minority.
We sat down with Griggs to discuss her experiences in engineering, representation issues within STEM fields, and how Penn State is working to bridge that gap.
Onward State: What has your experience been like as a Black woman in the world of STEM?
Lauren Griggs: My identity is really salient with me as a Black woman in STEM. It is something that I am often very aware of in a lot of spaces that I am in. I think it is something really important to be aware of, specifically in large, predominantly white institutions.
Often times, you are cognizant of the fact that you may be the only woman or person of color in that space, especially in the STEM field. It isn’t something that you ever stop being aware of.
OS: According to the Pew Research Center, Black people made up 9% of the STEM workforce in 2018. What are some of the reasons for that number being so low?
LG: There is a multitude of reasons that the number is so low, and I know form my work in advocacy for students and underrepresented students in STEM, a big reason is inclusiveness. At each step along someone’s journey, the environment plays a big role in whether or not a student continues on that journey in STEM.
It is also important to recognize that it’s different for people who can see someone like them in the spaces in which they are trying to navigate. That encouragement can really foster success.
On top of that, a lot of focus is on recruitment, which is great, but it’s the retention rates that matter. Looking at retention rates and why those numbers are so low can often be attributed to environment, which is why it is so important.
OS: What are some ways you think jobs or organizations in the STEM field can make education more accessible?
LG: I think it starts with bringing about awareness of achievements of people of color in that area. Often times I’ve been in spaces like predominant STEM classrooms and hallways where there are these grand portraits of famous people in STEM, and most of the time they are white men.
That is not to say that there are not people of color who also have contributed heavily to the STEM field, however. We need to promote and expose people to those achievements as well. Seeing role models is really influential in terms of students progression and success, and it helps the student to know that they belong there.
OS: How are Penn State and the College of Engineering creating a positive environment for people of color?
LG: In the College of Engineering, we have the Center for Engineering Outreach and Inclusion and we have a whole host of programs within that center. One is the Multicultural Engineering Program, which I head. We give not just individualized support, but group support like mentorship programs between peers and between students and alumni.
We also have a diversity roundtable that is headed by leaders of our student organizations, and they have a large focus on allyship and what it means to be an active ally. There’s also intersectionality awareness, which is part of the process of unifying our student organizations and bringing about awareness to a larger population.
We have a lot of student support and advocacy and we are trying to create an inclusive environment for everyone.
OS: What is your hope for what the STEM field will look like in the future?
LG: Right now, we are in a very unique time in which there is a lot of attention in terms of awareness about some of the things that are going on with people of color in all fields. I think specifically for the STEM field, the hope should be to not lose that momentum.
We want to go beyond educating ourselves and really put into practice tangible steps to better support our students of color and to change the environment. It really comes down to a shift in core values, and that has to happen on every single level.
There are things that take time, but making sure people’s momentum continues to be present and evolve is what will help the STEM field be the best it can be.
Griggs’ interview is part of an ongoing Onward State series of conversations with race relations, social justice, and diversity experts at Penn State. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider reading interviews with social justice professor Ashley Patterson, race relations professor Sam Richards, College of the Liberal Arts Dean Clarence Lang, or Restorative Justice Initiative director Efrain Marimon.
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