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Vertically Integrated Networking for Engineers (VINE) program connects women engineering students to thrive

Photo above was taken at a VINE workshop on professional dress for women

Entering the male-dominated field of computer engineering as a first-year student in 2015, Christine Reed found herself relying on other women students who’d been there and done that.

The small cadre of colleagues, all studying the same major, helped her find her own sense of direction. This year, she stepped up to organize a VINE group, which welcomed a new incoming Ram engineer. Now, she said, "I pass on my own advice. I give my own wisdom."

Providing continuous support for women students through such networks is the idea behind the new Vertically Integrated Networking for Engineers (VINE) program at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering. The program connects students by hosting intimate social gatherings within the same discipline, across years of study. Ideally, each group is made up of a senior, a junior, a sophomore and a first-year student.

“Peer-to-peer mentoring is tremendously powerful,” said Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., the dean of the school. “Nothing beats having colleagues solidly in your corner to help you navigate engineering education. The lack of female role models in engineering has left our students without the kind of career mentoring enjoyed by many of our male colleagues. The VINE program provides our students with mentors and gives them the opportunity to learn to mentor others.”

Lorraine M. Parker, Ph.D., director of diversity and student programs at VCU Engineering, launched the initiative as universities across the nation seek to increase women engineering student enrollment.

Nationally, women made up 19.8 percent of engineering students in bachelor degree programs in 2014, according to new data from the National Science Foundation. At the VCU School of Engineering, 25 percent of students are female.

The VINE program is currently open to women in the following disciplines: computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, nuclear engineering and mechanical engineering. The groups are encouraged to meet for coffee around town once a month — with the school picking up the tab. Help including suggested discussion prompts and coaching for leading small groups is available.

The essence of VINE is paying it forward, so each group is asked to take on a project, such as volunteering at a museum or working with a Girl Scout troop.

Roxanne Jassawalla, a junior in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said the program has helped her, too. She said, “Dr. Lorraine Parker is always willing to go the extra mile to ensure women in engineering know that they have a support system here at the school.”