Watson Scholars diversify future of engineering, computer

When trying to solve the knottiest problems of the 21st century, fostering a wide range of viewpoints and approaches is the quickest path to success. That mission drives Watson College’s diversity efforts to encourage more women and people of color to join the ranks of engineers and computer scientists.

In fall 2021, the Watson College Scholars Program welcomed its first cohort of 11 undergraduates from historically underrepresented communities. In addition to a $2,000 annual scholarship, the students receive extra support to help them succeed, such as networking opportunities, internships and job assistance. Donors and sponsors stepped up to pay for the program.

“We want to develop future innovators and leaders who will enter graduate school and the workforce as global citizens with a depth and breadth of professional and technical skill development,” Dean Krishnaswami “Hari” Srihari says. “Solving today’s most pressing issues — such as those in healthcare, clean energy, cybersecurity and autonomous systems — will require all of us working together.”

INVESTING IN STUDENTS’ FUTURES

The foundations for the scholars program rest on four key pillars: academic development, professional development, networking and community service.

When Miguel Baique started last July as Watson College’s assistant dean for academic diversity and inclusive excellence, he needed to figure out how those ideas would be put into practice — but thanks to previous roles at SUNY Geneseo and Nazareth College, he had the background and ability to develop a curriculum before the fall semester began. It also hasn’t been that long since Baique benefitted from similar initiatives as an undergraduate at Geneseo.

“There’s a correlation between the support that students received from these types of programs and their academic outcomes,” he says. “They feel accomplished in other areas, too.”

There is no separate application to join the Watson College Scholars. The Undergraduate Admissions Office chooses candidates from those first-year or transfer students who already have been accepted to Binghamton and qualify as economically disadvantaged, with priority for applicants from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

The program requires weekly group meetings (either in person or on Zoom) where the scholars discuss topics such as building résumés, writing cover letters, finding internships, starting LinkedIn accounts, and the importance of mentorship, networking and professional communication. Successful Watson alumni and program sponsors are guest speakers to inspire the next generation of engineers and computer scientists.

Baique hopes that sharing their experiences leads to peer support and accountability when navigating the higher education landscape. In addition, he holds one-on-one sessions with each student to make sure they are staying on track and to answer any questions, no matter how big or small. Sometimes there are specific assignments to reinforce something he hopes the scholars will learn.

“Other colleges and universities might provide tuition funding, but we are also going to invest in areas such as social development, professional development, community engagement and civic engagement,” he says. “There’s so much that students can take away from this program.”

Early in the fall semester, a welcome luncheon brought the first scholars together with representatives from many of the program’s sponsors. Students stood up one by one — some of them shy, others bolder — to introduce themselves at the start of their Watson College journey.

‘EVERYONE IS SO EAGER TO HELP’

Clara Rodriguez’s grandparents moved from Puerto Rico to New York in search of a better life. She’s the first in her family to pursue higher education, earning an Associate in Engineering Science degree at Dutchess Community College before coming to Binghamton.

As a biomedical engineering major (with a minor in Spanish), she felt drawn to Watson College because of its faculty and their strong commitment to research. She would love to investigate how to improve the efficiency of implantable technology, which is embedded directly into the body to modify, enhance or heal in ways that other devices can’t.

“I am fascinated by how the human body works, and I love to apply engineering principles to make things better,” says Rodriguez, who hails from Hopewell Junction. “Something is working in one person but not another person. What’s the difference? And how can I help the person where this is not working properly?”

The maze of higher-ed acronyms, financial-aid paperwork and classroom expectations can be a confusing place without a guiding hand from a parent or sibling who has traveled that road before, so Rodriguez is grateful for the support the University provides. In addition to the Watson College Scholars, she also has found help through Binghamton’s TRIO and BFirst initiatives, which guide low-income and first-generation college students.

“The people here are very well-connected,” Rodriguez says. “If you ask someone a question and they don’t know, they’ll send you to who they think will know. You will get the answer, which made the transition process so much easier. Everyone is so eager to help us and excited to see us succeed.”

Because of her previous college experience, some first-year students in the scholars program will seek out her advice, too. “They’ll ask me, ‘Hey, I’m taking this class. Is it supposed to be this hard?’ I’m like, ‘yup, it’s supposed to be this hard!’” she says with a laugh. “It gives a sense of reassurance, because if you’ve never had a sibling who has taken that class or had that professor before, then you think, ‘Is there something wrong with me?’ You realize it’s not a ‘you’ thing — everyone’s in the same boat.”

Rodriguez is doing research in Associate Professor Guy German’s lab, which focuses on how human skin protects us, and she’s already thinking she wants to stay at Binghamton to earn her master’s and PhD degrees. She loves the hands-on learning experiences at Watson College and how her professors relate those concepts to the real world.

“I look forward to getting my PhD one day and saying, ‘Mom, Dad — I did it!’”

‘I FEEL CONNECTED WITH EVERYBODY’

Jonel Poueriet-Santana was born in the Bronx as a triplet, although that’s hard to tell when you see a photo of him and his brothers together. For one, they’re each about 5-foot-9 and he towers over them at a lanky 6-foot-3.

His parents moved from the Dominican Republic to New York City to seek a better future. When he was 4 years old, Poueriet-Santana and his family relocated to Patchogue, on Long Island’s southern coast, so his mother could take a job as a private chef.

His video game time was limited — imagine three brothers trying to share one Xbox — but he had a laptop at a young age and loved to mess with the settings to see what would happen. “When I got older, I got a new laptop, so I literally broke down the old one and got into it. I was trying to figure out how it all worked,” he says.

Programming courses in high school sealed the deal: He wanted to pursue higher education in computer science. Like Rodriguez, Poueriet-Santana is a first-generation college student, and his views on the experience were influenced by portrayals of campus life in TV shows and films.

His family is “super-excited” that he’s part of the Watson College Scholars. “When I first found out about this program and got the invitation to join, the first person I told was my mom, and she was celebrating. She was so happy for me that I had this support group to lean on.”

Poueriet-Santana appreciates the program’s financial support as well as the professional skills he’s learning, which will give him an advantage when seeking an internship or job. He also likes the bonds that have formed among all the scholars.

Out of the classroom, he’s dived head-first into extracurricular activities. In his first semester, he has joined like-minded students at HackBU, the Association for Computing Machinery, the Society for Hispanic Engineers, the Caribbean Student Association, the Black Student Union and the Latin American Student Union. He’s also an ambassador for his residence hall, and he and his roommates are often in the gym at night playing pickup basketball games.

“My roommates, my building, my community —I feel connected with everybody,” he says. “Everybody’s really friendly. I’m having a really good time putting myself out there. Course-wise, I knew that computer science was going to be a tough program. I think I can definitely handle it.”

‘A GOOD OPPORTUNITY TO MEET SIMILAR PEOPLE’

Katherine Peters grew up in Baldwinsville, N.Y., as a problem-solver. Whether it was math, biology, chemistry or physics, she excelled at all of them. So when her mom suggested she check out engineering as a possible career path, she realized it played to all her strengths.

“I’m really attracted to biomedical engineering,” she says. “I’ve been thinking about working in a hospital, working on improving the technology there, or even doing research at a hospital. I like the idea of being in the field and behind the scenes.”

A few factors influenced her choice to come to Binghamton. The faculty for Watson’s biomedical program — which is more than 50% women — has a strong focus on research, and the University’s unique ties to industry offer more opportunities as a student and after graduation.

Like all first-year Watson students, Peters is taking courses through the Engineering Design Division, which introduces the various disciplines represented at the college by blending engineering fundamentals, communications and collaborative projects.

Although her parents and older brothers all went to college, Peters still finds comfort knowing that because she is a Watson College Scholar, she can rely on Baique and others if she encounters a problem and needs some advice.

The program also brings together a group of students who all are facing the same issues: keeping up with coursework, balancing academics with social lives, making new friends, thinking about future careers and maybe missing home sometimes. At their weekly meetings, the scholars are encouraged to share their recent highs and lows, which helps them to understand they are not alone in the challenges they face.

“I didn’t realize how close and tight-knit we would be,” Peters says. “It’s such a good opportunity to meet people who are similar, even though everybody comes from different backgrounds.”

On a personal level, Peters also tweaked a few things for the transition from high school to college: “I used to be very introverted, but there are no expectations at college. You can choose who you want to be. I feel like I’m way more open to talking to people, and that’s definitely going to come in handy with the Watson College Scholars Program, because I definitely want to make those connections.”

‘WE’RE GOING TO BE TRANSFORMATIONAL’

Plotting out what’s next for the Watson College Scholars, Baique is preparing for the cohort that will start in the fall, with the current students acting as mentors while still receiving guidance themselves. He is drawing inspiration from the concept of vertically integrated projects, where the expectations rise from year to year as students acquire more skills.

Another goal is to strengthen the relationship between the scholars and sponsor companies, hosting more on-campus workshops and connecting with employee resource groups that bring together different affinity groups as a support network.

The college has hired a part-time coordinator to aid the scholars, with an eye to making it a full-time role as the program expands over the next few years. Attracting additional sponsors and donors would allow the program to offer help to even more students.

“What we’re doing is going to be transformational, not just for the scholars but for how we act on equity and inclusive practices across Watson College in general,” Baique says. “I can’t wait for the future.”