Graduate Institution: University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Undergraduate Institution: University of Central Arkansas
Department: Undergraduate Affairs and MEP
Hometown: Little Rock, Arkansas
Carmen Robinson is the Director of Undergraduate Affairs and Director of the MESA Engineering Program at UCSC. She spoke with us about her role, her advice for undergraduate students, and how her own experience as a first-generation student inspired her to pursue a career in which she could help undergraduates.
What is your title and what do you do?
I am the the director of Undergraduate Affairs and the director of the MESA Engineering Program (MEP) at UCSC. I work with undergraduate affairs in advising, recruitment and outreach, retention, and programming. We also organize the events around graduation. MEP is an academic achievement program for underrepresented students in engineering, including women, people of color, and people of low socio-economic status. It’s a great program for our engineering students.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in Higher Education?
I am actually a first-generation college student. There were a lot of things I didn’t know, and so many bumps that I had along the way. It wasn’t that my parents were not involved, but they didn’t understand a lot of the pieces of my going to school… So for me, it’s about helping students not make the same mistakes that I did, and helping them be successful without having so many bumps in their paths- that was really important to me. I just wanted to support students.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Oh my gosh- so many things. It’s all the students. My favorite day is graduation day, obviously, but I also love sharing in students’ other accomplishments. The most exciting thing is when they come to me and they say, “I got that internship that I’ve been interviewing for,” or “I got the job that I wanted.” That means so much to me.
What influence have you seen the MESA engineering program have on students?
We’ve had students say, “I struggled, and then I found MEP and that was my home, where there were people like me that were bright, and interested in the same things that I’m interested in.” I think that’s so important. You meet someone else that is doing the same thing that you’re doing, and you guys can talk about it and feel validated… It is important to have a community, especially for students of color because it’s easy to feel like you’re erased, that you don’t belong somewhere because historically you’re not a part of that group, but things have to change and things are changing, and it’s so important to have diversity in tech specifically. So to find your home and to have that sense of belonging really gives you the confidence that you need to even be successful in those classes.
You’ve won the Bonita C. Jacobs Transfer Champions Award for improving the transfer student experience. What is unique about the transfer experience?
I actually first worked at a community college, and what I saw was that students weren’t necessarily being led to take the right courses to transfer. When I changed to a four-year institution, we made sure to go to the community colleges and do some advising to talk to them about our majors and what they needed to do to be successful. Most of our transfer students come in ready to go. They’ve already picked a major, and they just need to know what they need to do to be successful. However, one of the challenges is that they have such a little amount of time, so we also need to help them find research opportunities and internships quickly. It’s difficult, but our students are so resilient and very in tune with what they need, so they just need our support to help them get there.
Do you do any work with student groups?
I advise SHPE, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and NSBE, which is the National Society of Black Engineers. I love working with them. They are a bright group of students. They’re so self-sufficient and I’m just there if they need anything, like advice or fundraising. Each group goes to a national conference every year and they’ll come back with internships and networking opportunities, and I just love it. My favorite part is seeing them grow so much over the years, and seeing them get those opportunities is amazing.
What is your biggest piece of advice to undergraduate students?
Enjoy being in college. You’ll never have a time like this ever again in your life. Enjoy meeting people and enjoy, you know, taking naps in the middle of the day- enjoy all of those things because it’s such a unique time. I think sometimes we take it for granted because we’re so excited about getting to the outcome, which is getting a job, but you’ll be working for 60 years! You won’t be in college for that long, so enjoy that time.
Also, talk to professors. Those are the people who write you letters of recommendation, so you have to let them see you! You might not be thinking about grad school when you’re a freshman or a sophomore, but you might end up doing it- I did. You have to get in front of them, go to office hours, and try to do research. If you’re doing programming, practice it, go to hackathons so that you can have something on your resume that shows that you didn’t just go to class, but you did things. That means so much in interviews.
Do you have any specific advice for under-represented students in STEM?
Yes. Try to find someone that you can talk to. Mentors are so important. I didn’t have that when I was in school, and I didn’t realize how important it was. Those are the people who tell you where to go, what to. They can’t do everything for you, but it’s nice to get advice from someone, especially in the industry… Come to events, because there are so many industry professionals who want to talk to students. Also, you need to work really hard. I mean, I wish I had better advice for that, but you have to work really hard to be noticed, and you have to do that to be successful unfortunately. But keep your head up, and just work yourself up into being successful, and remember to talk to people about what is going on.
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