When she was in high school, Haripriya Mehta, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science (Course 6), attended workshops hosted by Northwestern University’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE, pronounced ”swee”), a global organization dedicated to supporting women interested in, or pursuing careers in, engineering and technology. The impression of those events — and seeing “all of the cool things that you could do with engineering” — had a profound impact on her life. “That’s why I pursued engineering here at MIT. I wanted to share my love of STEM with young girls and everyone else in the MIT community,” Mehta said. Her experiences may have also influenced her decision to join SWE at MIT and, this year, to serve as its president.
To celebrate its 40th year on campus, SWE hosted an anniversary celebration on Sept. 19. One of the largest student organizations on campus, MIT SWE was, until recently, an undergraduates-only organization, but Mehta helped to open membership to graduate students.
In addition to promoting diversity among women engineers, SWE seeks to introduce students of all ages, from grade school to high school, to STEM fields. Nova Xu, a biological engineering (Course 20) senior and SWE’s vice president of on-campus outreach, coordinates weekly events for area girls who want to know more about opportunities in science and engineering. In the past, SWE members demonstrated how to extract DNA from strawberries or how to construct a catapult.
Whatever form the outreach takes, SWE programs target under-resourced communities. For example, Xu has teamed with Course 6 junior Jeana Choi, vice president of off-campus outreach, to connect with Boston-area high schoolers who might want to know more about engineering education and opportunities at MIT. Choi feels that SWE provides a “way to encompass people of all genders at MIT, encourage them toward engineering, and also give back to the community around us.” SWE’s mission is to empower women in the field of engineering, but their doors are open to students of any gender who wish to participate.
Course 20 senior Julia Pei knew she wanted to join SWE when she came to MIT. Back home in Ohio, Pei attended a SWE event that inspired her to learn more about engineering. Now, as MIT SWE’s vice president of career development, Pei creates networking opportunities for members such as “Meet the Professionals,” where women engineers working in many fields meet with students to discuss their disciplines in a low-key environment. Pei shares how ”it’s exciting to see all of these women get excited about what’s to come after MIT,” in terms of their career paths and professional growth.
At the 40th anniversary celebration, Professor Sangeeta Bhatia SM ’97, PhD ’97, director of the Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies and MIT SWE’s faculty advisor, reminded attendees that when the chapter started up, only 13 percent of MIT students were women. Today, half of MIT’s students are women, she said. As Bhatia stood next to current MIT SWE President Mehta, she shared that she, too, served as SWE chapter president during her undergraduate years at Brown University. Bhatia added, “You are your own network and you will carry that forever,” and she looked forward to celebrating MIT SWE’s 80th birthday in another 40 years.