My freshman year at Pennsylvania (Penn) State University was one of the most difficult of my life. As a woman in STEM, I felt lost and disoriented by a lack of community within the university. I also believed that I was not competent enough to major in engineering. But once I began to talk with other women in my classes, I realized that the way I felt was common. Connecting with other women in STEM helped me feel less isolated and allowed me to persevere in my studies.
As a sophomore, I discovered the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) House, an on-campus living and learning community. WISE House’s academic support and communal activities help first-year women in STEM thrive. Living together allows participants to form valuable connections with other women in their majors. Had I begun college in a space like WISE House, I believe I would have more quickly experienced a sense of belonging in engineering. I decided to get involved with this program because I wanted to support other women starting out in STEM programs.
I’m currently the WISE House program assistant. Officially, that means I plan professional development and educational events for residents. But I also serve as a mentor, a role model, and a cheerleader for these women because, due to my own experiences at Penn State, I know that’s what they need.
At the beginning of the fall 2022 semester, as I watched students awkwardly interact with each other in the WISE House living areas, I felt like a camp counselor during the first week of sleepaway camp. The residents were shy and nervous but also eager to jump into the world of college. Looking back at my freshman year, I could relate when some residents said they felt scared about the first week of classes and the heavy workload that comes with being in STEM.
Since that first week, these women have formed a strong community. Each night, I see them hard at work in the first-floor study room, conquering calculus together or discussing the difficulties they face in class. But out of all the things I’ve witnessed at WISE House, I am proudest of the ways in which these young women choose to take control of their education.
Working with my residents motivated me to speak out about the problems women in STEM often experience in the classroom. I’ve also found that discussing our problems helps us find commonalities, understand root causes, and ultimately transcend barriers. Living in this community makes it much easier to be part of those conversations.
Programs like WISE House offer much-needed support and empower women to succeed in our fields of study. As women in STEM, we are here to take up space, and we will do so proudly. My experiences with WISE House have given me hope about the future of women in STEM, both here at Penn State and in the wider world.
Photo: WISE House residents connect with one another and form a strong community by socializing and having fun together. (Isabella Lynch)