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Summer Leadership Academy for Diverse Students Gives Tools to Compete on a Non-level Playing Field

Nilanjana Buju Dasgupta

Nilanjana Dasgupta

In July, UMass Amherst launched a virtual Summer Leadership Academy for Diverse Students in Technology and Engineering. The academy was spearheaded by the Institute of Diversity Sciences (IDS) at UMass Amherst. During the six-week academy, 54 women and students of color, including seven from the College of Engineering, learned the “19 Levers of Success” they need as preparation for competing on the “non-level playing field” they will face when they begin their professional careers.

Among the College of Engineering students who took part in the virtual academy were: mechanical engineering major Alexis Nurse; chemical engineering majors Telvin Abariga, Anshula Kale, and Katherine (Kat) Nilov; biomedical engineering majors Alexandra Lazarov and Lilla Caton; and computer engineering major Joel Colon.

As the Leadership Academy team explained about the participants, “They will learn to understand their unique strengths and how to guide others to appreciate the value they are delivering. They will also learn how the leadership lessons for workplace entry and success can be practiced right away and can help overcome challenges during the college years.”

The comments of student participants in the academy clearly backed up this assessment.

As Caton observed, “The Summer Leadership Academy has been an amazing learning experience that allowed me to develop essential soft skills, including networking, communication, and negotiation skills. Additionally, I have gained invaluable insight into steps I can take to maximize my internship and early career experiences.”

Nilov had a similar reaction from her participation. “The Leadership Academy taught me that every action you take moves you forward in your own career, whether it's negotiating a position or networking and building relationships with those in your interested field,” she said. “One of my biggest takeaways is that to be a leader is to be impactful, which immediately opens our eyes to the infinite ways we can be impactful, one example being students supporting students, and that building this character trait is not only career-advancing but it builds on who you are as a person in the most rewarding way possible.”

According to the News Office release, the academy was the idea of a statewide network called Researchers, Educators, Business Leaders, and Students (REBLS), which is funded by the National Science Foundation and housed within IDS at UMass Amherst. The members of REBLS recognized that students of color and women majoring in technology and engineering may be disproportionately affected by a growing gap between the demand for, and supply of, internships, so they created the new initiative to bridge this gap.

The Leadership Academy was led by equity and inclusion expert Nilanjana Buju Dasgupta and a core team at UMass Amherst, in collaboration with UMass Dartmouth, UMass Lowell, Harvard University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Wheaton, Smith, and Mount Holyoke colleges, along with several other Massachusetts institutions. Participants in the academy were sponsored by technology and engineering sector leaders MathWorks, Dell Technologies, Red Hat, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Nye Lubricants, and Energetiq.

The News Office noted that more than 100 students applied for the limited number of seats, and 54 students – 72% women, 48% Black and Latinx, and 24% LGBTQ students from 16 Massachusetts colleges and universities – were selected through a lottery.

The Leadership Academy team explained that “Early career advancement is particularly challenging for groups who are historically underrepresented at mid/senior levels in the tech industry – many have been successful, though, and we use interviews with them to illustrate career challenges and solutions.”

The team added that “Often, underrepresented groups experience situations which are not commonly seen by those who are part of the mainstream norms, and almost always the solutions are creative – they need to work within the norms of the tech culture, as well as must counter the commonly held stereotypes.” 

As College of Engineering student participant Colon explained, “In short, the Summer Leadership Academy was not your average summer college course. It is six weeks packed with fun negotiation simulations, career advice from young professionals, and opportunities to build connections with students and professors. If I could take the class again next summer, I would because this academy is not a class, it is a toolbox with lessons that not only apply to school and work but to leading a successful life.”

UMass Alumnus Kenneth Lloyd supported all the College of Engineering participants of the academy with a gift of $7,700, including $6,300 in scholarship requests and $1,400 for books and materials. Lloyd is the vice president and general manager of the Switches and Relays Division of Electro Switch Corporation, a manufacturer and designer of electrical switches used in the utility, military, and industrial markets. Lloyd graduated from UMass with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering. (August 2020)