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University of Virginia




   Hispanic Engineering Group

   Wins National Award

   By Zak Richards


Peter Rios (BME '09) has helped the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers at U.Va. double in size and get a $7,000 grant. He was one of two students in the country recognized as an outstanding future leader at the national SHPE confernce held Nov. 12-16.

The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) at U.Va. is making significant strides in helping to promote diversity, both within the Engineering School and throughout the University’s academic community. The group’s members consider their efforts essential to furthering academic knowledge and also promoting the study of science and engineering among younger generations.

U.Va.’s SHPE chapter was recognized as the best small chapter in the country at this year’s national SHPE conference held Nov. 12-16 in Phoenix. Also, the group’s president, Peter Rios (BME ’09), was one of two students in the nation honored as an outstanding future leader.

“SHPE is a shining example of a student group dedicated to promoting diversity in the science and technology fields at the University,” says Carolyn Vallas, director of the Center for Diversity in Engineering. “The group is reaching out to youth who will soon become some of our next top students.”

In the past year, SHPE has doubled its size to 30 members and this fall garnered a $7,000 grant from the national SHPE organization for use in enhancing its Juntos Podemos (in English, “Together We Can”) high school outreach program. Also, this spring members will host SHPE’s Regional Leadership Development Conference (RLDC), which will bring together 300 members representing more than 45 colleges and universities across the United States and Puerto Rico. 

“Our group is helping to bring a diversity of thought, passion and leadership to the University,” says Rios. “I have a sense that many of our new members will be leaders in the University and eventually in their career fields.”

While the group’s name may suggest that the group solely represents Hispanic engineering students, Rios comments that the group is open to, and has members from, a variety of ethnic groups and majors.

“Everyone is welcome in the group,” Rios explains. “In addition to our Hispanic members, we have African American and white students and students from other parts of the University, such as biology, psychology and economics.”

Paralleling the group’s growth, the Juntos Podemos high school outreach program has steadily grown since its inception in 1999 — expanding from just 15 students to now almost 100 accepted applicants. The cost-free program serves as an important introduction to engineering and higher education for Northern Virginia high school students.

“A lot of these students have never been exposed to college life, let alone engineering,” Rios notes.

From the moment the high school students step off chartered buses, they are immersed in the life of engineering students at U.Va. In one action-packed weekend, they meet with university leaders, talk with minority professors and conduct hands-on engineering projects. In year’s past they have worked on miniature hurricane-proof houses and participated in robotics competitions.

Juntos Podemos is timed to coincide with the annual Engineering Open House, so students can learn about each of the disciplines offered in the School’s nine departments by visiting with faculty who open up their research labs and set up displays to illustrate their particular fields.

To round out the heavy academics-based schedule, students are also exposed to social activities such as karate, salsa and belly dancing.  

The group’s recent grant will improve its offerings for students who attend the weekend program. Rios plans to use a portion of the grant to purchase top-of-the-line engineering kits to build miniature solar cars.

Rios, a member of the group for the past four years, can easily recount many success stories from his experience with the group. He estimates there are currently four SHPE members who started as students visiting U.Va. through the Juntos Podemos program.

Rios recalls the story of a young Peruvian woman who is now majoring in biology at U.Va. 

“She told me, ‘I came from Peru four years ago and I just got my citizenship here. I knew nothing about U.Va and I didn’t know what opportunities the school had to offer. I completed this program and it really got me excited about college life and about the potential that I had to succeed.”

You can learn more about the group’s outreach activities, other events and how you can get involved by visiting http://www.student.virginia.edu/~shpe/.