Hispanic Professional Engineers Chapter Shows Growth; New President Honored

Posted: December 12, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By David Driver

Twelve members of the Mason chapter of the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) attended last year’s national conference, but when the upcoming conference is held next month in Denver, Mason chapter president Karen Siles expects at least 22 members will be on hand.

There were about 10 officers in the club when the fall semester began, and now there are nearly two dozen members. Siles credits past presidents Eliezer Medina (2004-05) and Jose Armat (2005-06) for helping to revive a once-dormant chapter of the SHPE.

But the modest Siles has also received kudos for her work on increasing chapter membership. The senior, who is majoring in electrical engineering, was honored by SHPE as the best chapter president for the month of September during a regional meeting in Philadelphia earlier this fall.

The regional chapter of SHPE encompasses schools from the East Coast of the United States, as well as Puerto Rico.

“I wasn’t expecting the award. Usually Puerto Rico gets all of the awards,” says Siles, a 2002 graduate of Annandale (Va.) High School. “They have 600 paid members and they bring 100 people to all of these conferences.”

Hispanic engineering students
Karen Siles, far left, holds her best president award from the regional Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers. Mason chapter board members celebrated with her.
Photo courtesy Karen Siles

SHPE, which began in California in the 1970s, is the leading social-technical organization whose primary function is to enhance and achieve the potential of Hispanics in engineering, math and science. The Mason chapter began in the late 1990s and was dormant until 2004, when it was revived by Medina and Bernard White, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering.

Other Mason officers this year are Gustavo Castaneda (vice president for external affairs, systems engineering major); Glenda Vasquez (vice president for internal affairs, civil engineering major); Diego Torrico (secretary, electrical engineering major); Jean Pierre Goncalvez (treasurer, systems engineering major); Oskar Moran (webmaster, electrical engineering major); and Hany Issa (Information Technology Unit representative, electrical engineering major).

Siles, who moved from Bolivia to Annandale with her family when she was 15, attended Northern Virginia Community College for one year before she came to Mason. She found out about SHPE before she came to Mason through the Center for the Advancement of Hispanics in Science and Engineering Education, a national educational and scientific nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

“I was part of a summer program for minority students who didn’t have a lot of money and were interested in science and engineering. I was part of this for three summers,” she says. “Then they offered me the chance to become a teacher’s assistant. I was like the guinea pig: they never had a student who was a teacher. The director knew me; he thought it would be a good idea to teach. It ended up being a really good experience. They suggested I join SHPE. NVCC didn’t have a chapter.”

Siles was the vice president of the Mason chapter of SHPE during the 2005-06 academic year.

Does Siles, as a female and Hispanic, feel like a pioneer in the field of engineering?

“It was really tough at first, especially being Hispanic. Not that people put up a barrier,” says Siles, noting that juggling her family duties and handling a tough course load her first year at Mason were the main challenges.

Siles was able to work about 30 hours a week while at NVCC, but she had to cut back because of the rigors of her field of study at Mason. She now manages to work about 10 to 15 hours a week doing software development in Chantilly, Va., for CACI International Inc.

After final exams are finished this month, Siles will assist Nathalia Peixoto, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering, on bioengineering research. Siles and Peixoto attended a “Women in Engineering Day” on Dec. 1 at Lockheed Martin in Woodbridge, Va., along with Mason faculty members Jill Nelson, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering; and Elizabeth White, associate professor in computer science.

Siles was able to encourage high school sophomore girls who attended.

“People always told me it was going to be hard; electrical engineering is really hard. I think in the end it is worth it,” she says.

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