When student clubs collaborate to throw a dinner and open up a discussion, wonderful things can happen. Kathy Tong (Chemical Engineering ‘21) and the SJSU branch of the engineering and technical science sorority, Alpha Omega Epsilon, wanted to encourage an open conversation about diversity and inclusion, within both STEM and academic communities.
Inspired by the camaraderie that is evident at the highly successful Silicon Valley Women in Engineering conferences, as well as by the networking-by-rotation process in Blanca Sanchez-Cruz’s MEP’s Industry Mixers, Tong decided to throw a networking dinner for students and industry professionals. For assistance, she reached out to like-minded members of SOLES, SWE, and STEM NOW, a club based in the College of Science that now includes STEM members from all colleges across the SJSU campus.
The four co-hosts banded together to provide funds, stability and momentum to get the job done. They met biweekly at first, then weekly as the event drew closer. Reaching out to their own networks, club members invited professionals from Apple, Lockheed Martin, Intuit, Oracle, and other companies -- and eighteen professionals agreed to attend. Four were SJSU alumni.
"We wanted professionals to share their experiences, and inspire the next generation of students. We wanted their stories," explained Tong.
Doing such a large event was great event planning experience for Tong and her co-hosts. The professionals joined 40 students for a pasta dinner that fit within the clubs’ collective budget. Pratyusha Pogaru, the STEM Now representative, said that it was important to have transparency around costs, contributions, and receipts, and to make the event completely free to all members of all four organizations who participated.
Alpha Omega Epsilon and SWE opened the event, explaining that there would be three 20-minute rotations, and inviting their guests to focus on how to motivate and inspire each other, and remain free from judgement. “We created random groupings (in terms of major and professional field) to ensure that we could encourage conversations that everyone can have,” noted Tong. “We were worried if students from too many of the same majors and organizations were in each group, it could make others feel excluded from the conversation.”
Professionals shared with the students about diversity and inclusion issues they faced in school and during the first couple of years of their career. "Hearing how they handled those challenges and kept their mindset was powerful,” said Pogaru.
Jesus Villicana, Engineering Student Engagement Advisor, attended the dinner in the role of an industry guest. “The organizers achieved a good balance between an informal, open feel and the structure to have productive conversations. Questions were laid out on the table as conversation prompts and it was evident that a lot of reflection had gone into those questions.” Villicana shared his career story with those at his table and spoke about the challenges he faced, “the ways in which you are confronted by your identity.” As a first-generation college student with immigrant parents and a low income, he talked about the moment he realized that the adaptive behaviors that helped him to survive childhood, were no longer working.
Debra Caires, current advisor for both STEM Now & the Beta Upsilon chapter of A.O.E., spoke at the event and quoted Verna Myers, "Diversity is being invited to the party; Inclusion is being asked to dance."
The two-hour dinner spilled over into several lingering conversations -- always a sign of a very successful event. “I was impressed with what these women achieved,” said Caires. “I have to say, in my almost 30 years on campus, it was one of the best events I've attended. I am excited to see what next year brings.” (photos by Trinh T. Photography)