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In “A Man’s Field”

Pioneering Engineer Guides Students toward Success

When Carolyn O’Connor Birmingham, E57, was at Tufts, just three female students in her class studied engineering—and she was the only one in her major.

“I was very much aware that it was unusual to be entering a ‘man’s field,’” she says. But scholarship aid, a supportive dean, and the friendships Birmingham forged with young women in her dormitory helped her thrive. She became the first woman to graduate from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Now, by supporting Tufts’ Center for STEM Diversity, Birmingham helps a wide variety of students flourish as they study science, engineering, and technology at Tufts. “My own experience has shown me the importance of diverse viewpoints,” Birmingham says. “We best address challenges when people from many different backgrounds are involved.”

Supporting Vital Programs

Birmingham and her husband, Jim, decided to contribute to the center after previously creating a scholarship for low-income students at Tufts. Their new gift supports staffing for programs including Bridge to Engineering Success at Tufts (BEST) and the Program for Retention in Science and Engineering (PRISE).

“BEST provided a social and academic support system that’s unmatched anywhere else,” says Edwin Diaz, E14, a member of the first group to graduate from the four-year program. Taking calculus and other courses at Tufts with fellow BEST students the summer before his freshman year gave him an academic boost and helped him develop lasting friendships, learn to navigate the campus, and find out where to go for advice.

Diaz credits BEST staff with encouraging him to get involved with the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). He became co-president of the Tufts chapter his senior year and was recruited to his first job after college—at Eaton in California—through an NSBE career fair. He started work in July.

Classmate Corey Christian, E14, is pursuing a master’s degree in chemical engineering at Columbia University. “BEST is the reason I am where I am,” he says. BEST mentors encouraged him to get involved in conducting research the summer after his first year at Tufts, he explains. “Without that research, I question whether I would have gotten into graduate school.”

From Orientation On

The impact of such support can be seen long before graduation, though. Sophomore Aristana Scourtas, a participant in PRISE whose parents did not finish their college educations, entered Tufts knowing she was interested in biology and psychology. When a professor came to speak at a weekly PRISE meeting, she discovered a new passion: computer science. “He made computer science sound so cool,” she says. “I didn’t realize before how much of computer science is about thinking differently and solving problems.… Now I’m considering changing majors, and I was already coding during my summer internship.”

Birmingham says such stories demonstrate the impact of Tufts’ programs on students. “It’s clear that they’re flourishing, because of their motivation and also the support they’re receiving. It makes such a difference to have mentors and colleagues in the field.”