Mentoring experience inspires project to increase retention in master's programs


By Sarah Small

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Growing up with limited resources in a small town in Peru, Julio Urbina was not aware of the field of electrical engineering, let alone that he could have a successful research career in it. Through advice and guidance from a few adults in his community, Urbina learned not only about this type of engineering but also how to obtain the education and financial assistance he needed to set him on his career path.

Now, the Penn State associate professor of electrical engineering is helping others in a similar way through the National Science Foundation-funded project “Strengthening Pathways for the Domestic Graduate Engineering Workforce and Future Professoriate: Increasing Access to Engineering Master’s Programs.” Urbina also refers to the undertaking as the Advancing Master’s Program, or AMP Scholars.

The six-year, $1.5 million National Science Foundation-funded project seeks to increase enrollment, retention and graduation of high-achieving Penn State engineering master’s students who have financial need through recruitment efforts, an inclusive mentoring program with faculty mentors, and scholarships. A second pillar of the project involves facilitating more inclusive mentoring among engineering faculty. This work builds off a successful project co-led by Urbina that focused on and, ultimately, improved the retention and graduation of underrepresented and low-income undergraduate students in engineering at Penn State.

“A master’s degree allows students to really focus on their passion, gain social mobility and have more opportunities,” Urbina said, explaining why he is looking forward to applying the success of the previous program for undergraduates to the graduate level.

While recognizing the financial aid component as imperative, Urbina said that the mentorship aspect is the part he is most excited about, largely because he credits the mentoring he received early in life to his own success. Without a role model in his family to guide him to college, a mentor guided him to learn English and to prepare for and pass the entrance exam at the Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria in Peru.

To help formalize and expand these experiences for students, Urbina set up a robust mentorship program as part of the AMP Scholars project.

“We want to make sure that the faculty involved in mentoring develop their skills in diversity and inclusion practices,” he said. “Sometimes, we want to help, but we don’t know that one population of students may have different needs, and there is a process for that. The people who helped me didn’t give me money; they just had conversations with me and helped me with applications. If people are willing to give some of their time to someone who doesn’t know about the opportunities available to them, it could potentially change that person’s life.”

The co-principal investigators on the project are Tonya Peeples, associate dean for equity and inclusion in the College of Engineering; Reginald Hamilton, associate professor of engineering science and mechanics; and Catherine Berdanier, the Clyde W. Shuman Jr. and Nancy Shuman Early Career Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

Other project contributors include Cindy Reed, assistant director of student research and graduate equity, who will work with the college’s graduate recruitment committee and direct an orientation program for the new master’s students; and Catherine Cohan, assistant research professor, who will serve as the evaluator for the project. The recruitment of high-achieving master’s students with financial need will be a University-wide collaborative effort in coordination with Melissa Kunes, assistant vice president for undergraduate education and executive director for student aid; Stephanie Preston, associate dean for graduate educational equity; Lauren Griggs, director, Penn State A. James Clark Scholars Program; and Curtis Price, director, Penn State McNair Scholars Program.


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