Alejandra Restrepo said as a college freshman at Auburn University the thought of one day becoming an engineer was scary and overwhelming. But now, four years later, her dream is coming true with the help and support of the friends she has made through the university’s 100+ Women Strong program.
“When I arrived on campus, I attended a 100+ Women Strong event and saw the potential benefits and supportive community that this organization offers,” said Restrepo, an industrial engineering student and a co-op employee at Alabama Power. “This organization really helped me to see what engineering is all about and has given me the practical skills needed to succeed in this field.”
Engineering is still primarily a man’s world. That’s why in 2014, Auburn University brought together a network of female alumni and corporate supporters who share one of the College of Engineering’s missions: to recruit, retain and reward female students. Alabama Power’s Pam Boyd was among the small group that played an instrumental role in forming 100+ Women Strong. Since then, 27 Alabama Power and Southern Company employees have become part of this network. Alabama Power is a sponsor.
“We started with just a handful of women, and now we have grown to 167 Auburn alumni,” said Boyd, Power Delivery Technical Services manager who is on the 100+ Women Strong executive council. “When the university asked me to get involved in this program, I saw it as a great opportunity to mentor these students, share my experiences and let them know that engineering is possible. They can achieve their dreams.”
The university seeks to attract and retain young women through a variety of initiatives, including engineering summer camps for high school students, an event each fall for college freshmen and new graduate students, workshops and a springtime leadership development conference. Financial support contributed by members helps provide students with access to scholarships, programs to study abroad and research fellowships.
The organization opens the way for female professionals to connect with engineering students. Alumni, like Boyd and Alabama Power Environmental Affairs General Manager Markell Heilbron, have served as mentors, forging relationships with students, offering advice and support, and sharing their experiences.
“I’m passionate about developing talented employees and helping them succeed, and that includes women engineers,” Heilbron said. “Valuing diversity and retaining talented women not only fosters innovation, but also helps us model the demographics of our customer base. Women bring a different perspective to the table, and it’s valuable to have all employees’ perspectives represented to continue to grow and succeed as a company.”
An Auburn senior electrical engineering student, Brooke Clark is a co-op employee at Alabama Power’s Dadeville Office and will begin working full-time at the company after graduation in May. She said for her, 100+ Women Strong has been all about making connections and building relationships.
“It introduced me to other female students in engineering,” she said. “I was able to make friends with people who are in the same boat as I am and are facing the same obstacles and experiences. It has provided a support system.”
The organization is reaping results. In 2017, more than 1,000 female undergraduate students enrolled in engineering at Auburn for the first time. That represents 20 percent of the overall student enrollment in engineering – up from 14 percent in 2006. Similarly, over the past 10 years, the percentage of undergraduate engineering degrees awarded to women has risen from 14 percent to 21 percent.
According to research conducted by Program Assessment and Graduate Studies at Auburn University, female students who participate in 100+ Women Strong programs are significantly more likely to remain in engineering.
“Alabama Power’s sponsorship and its employees’ participation have allowed our organization to reach out to future and current Auburn women in engineering as we help them pursue their goals,” said Myra Girard, coordinator of 100+ Women Strong. “As our membership increases, so will our reach to recruit, retain and reward the best AU women in engineering.”
Christine Baker, Alabama Power director of Regulatory Pricing and Costing, said she is proud to be part of an organization that provides women today with more opportunities than she and her friends had during their years at Auburn.
“One of my favorite experiences has been to see students show up for the annual welcome event a bit nervous and mostly alone, and then see them leave with the confidence that this is all going to work out,” Baker said. “They have already begun to form a network of friends before classes even start. They know they will have somewhere to turn when they have questions. They are taking advantage of the opportunities that we are offering them, and their experience will definitely be better for it.”
*This story originally appeared in Alabama Power’s Powergrams magazine.