Take Care of Our Own
Engineering schools have become better at considering the needs of students. They need to do the same for faculty.
By Mel Chua
As engineering educators, we teach our students to change, build, and make worlds.
But what about us?
How about our own worlds in engineering teaching, research, and praxis? Do we change the environment of engineering education in-house so we can show our students how to ask for what they need, give what they can, and change the world so it works better for all of us?
We want to support racial, ethnic, and national minority students in our field. Great! So, when those students go to conferences, what proportion of high-profile keynote and plenary speakers are from underrepresented groups? Are those faculty members asked to speak about “diversity issues,” or are they asked to speak about their topic of expertise? Are our Latinx, black, and Native American colleagues getting hired, tenured, and promoted at sufficient rates to increase diversity? Do we learn to pronounce the preferred names of our Asian colleagues? Are we quick to blank out an accented voice?
We want our LGBTQ students to feel welcome, safe, and supported. How are we doing at supporting our colleagues who are their models? Do we use the pronouns they request? Do our academic institutions provide employees with the legal rights and access to health care they need? Who does the labor of explaining “safe zone” topics to the rest of campus, and especially to department colleagues?
We want to support first-generation college students—but what about our colleagues who were once those students? We want to support our students who are military veterans; how about faculty and staff who also served? How about colleagues caring for aging parents and ill partners? Can our disabled colleagues physically access our conferences, understand our talks, and read our websites and papers? Are our meeting snacks safe for colleagues with food allergies?
Where are our colleagues who live with depression, chronic fatigue, or mental illness? Our colleagues who are not neurotypical and need to fidget or take breaks in a quiet room? Our colleagues who are navigating visas and immigration? Our colleagues who are parents? Why can our own ASEE Annual Conference arrange for otters and sloths to be on-site courtesy of the local zoo, but not provide on-site childcare? (Editor’s note: ASEE planned to offer childcare this year but needed a minimum of 10 children to participate and received only three inquiries.)
And if any of these people are us: How can we ask for what we need from our own communities, and show our students how to do the same?
As I write this, I’m transitioning out of being a student. I passed my dissertation defense (thank you, adviser and committee!) and am working on revisions. I will soon enter our field as a full (albeit junior) practitioner; most of you reading this are already there. We’re smart and passionate, and we’ve worked hard. We’ve made it into a place that’s very difficult to make it into—and yes, the multiple possible meanings of this sentence are intentional. We are remaking this world for our students. But let us also remake it for ourselves.
Let us—the scholars, the teachers, the faculty, and staff—look at what we need, not only what we can tolerate. Let us find the courage to ask ourselves what we might ask for, what we might open up the opportunity for others to give. Don’t just make the world better for future generations; make it better for yourself as well, and you’ll make a world where making-better is easier, where the platform is more modifiable. Let us model how to make and remake the worlds we live in, the worlds that we can and should come to claim and call our own.
Mel Chua, whose Unstable Equilibrium column has provided a student voice in Prism for several years, is completing her Ph.D. in engineering education at Purdue University. As she will soon no longer be a student, this is her last column.