Women in Engineering Program fosters community, opportunities that beget success

National award recognizes Penn State’s program as ‘model for other institutions’

June 21, 2024

By Mariah Lucas

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Community is important, particularly for student engineers and computer scientists who belong to underrepresented groups, according to Cheryl Knobloch, senior director of Penn State College of Engineering’s Women in Engineering Program (WEP).  

“In WEP, a robust engineering community and plentiful resources combine to facilitate engineering excellence and create inclusive culture for student success,” Knobloch said. The program is inclusive, and students of all genders and identities are welcome to participate. 

For more than 20 years, WEP has supported Penn State engineering students with resources like facilitated study groups, WEP Wednesdays — biweekly educational meetings that include dinner for participants — and the Women in Engineering Program Orientation (WEPO). The four-day engineering-focused orientation takes place ahead of the fall semester, where first-year students earn one academic credit while engaging with academic resources, career development and peer mentoring with the goal of building community and facilitating first-year success. 

Earlier this year, WEP was honored as the sole national recipient of the 2024 Women in Engineering Program Award by the Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN), in which it was recognized as “an outstanding women in engineering program that serves as a model for other institutions.” 

The national recognition comes as no surprise to recent alumnae of the program, who emphasized WEP’s strengths in creating community and preparing them for success in the classroom and in their careers. 

“When you meet one accomplished woman, it is easy to categorize her as an anomaly and put her on an unattainable shelf,” said Katherine Maloney, a 2024 chemical engineering graduate and former WEP leader. “But when you meet 40 accomplished women, you are empowered to exploit the common denominator and strategize how you can become one of them. That is exactly what I did.” 

Maloney is beginning her career as a liaison engineer in the global services division of Boeing, on an all-male team.

“WEP kept me on the path of engineering when I was uncertain and will continue to do the same for future generations,” Maloney said. WEP has engaged, supported and celebrated me at every step of my college career. I was inspired at every turn to take advantage of so many opportunities to bolster my development as a student, an engineer and a leader. This program has been a powerful catalyst for my development, and I can confidently say I would not be the woman, nor engineer, that I am today without it.”

Three portraits of individuals

From left to right: Cheryl Knobloch, senior director of the Penn State Women in Engineering Program (WEP), and WEP alumnae Sydney Assalita and Katherine Maloney. Credit: Penn State College of Engineering; provided by Sydney Assalita; Erin Baskin/Penn State

When Sydney Assalita, a 2024 engineering science graduate, was starting her first year at Penn State, she worried about how she would find community at a time when COVID-19 created restrictions on gathering in person.

“I participated in WEPO, which was shifted to a completely virtual orientation format,” Assalita said. “Through the undeniable passion of the student leaders, I felt welcomed and found a place where I belonged. I saw these successful students, heard their stories and became empowered, knowing that I could one day sit in their shoes.”

Assalita went on to serve in WEP’s leadership throughout her undergraduate years and served as overall lead for WEPO 2023 in her senior year. In the fall, Assalita will attend the University of Michigan to pursue a doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science.

“WEP showed me that I am capable of being successful as a woman in engineering, and that I could envision my future to be whatever I desired,” she said.

Programs like WEPO contribute to the success and retention of students in the College of Engineering, according to Enrique Gomez, interim associate dean for equity and inclusion and professor of chemical engineering. According to data collected by Gomez’s office, retention among WEPO participants since 2006 is about 10 percent higher than it is for nonparticipants.

“WEP has established a culture of mentorship and peer support that has permeated throughout the College of Engineering,” Gomez said. “It is challenging to overstate the impact that WEP has had on the culture, inclusion and sense of belonging at Penn State. The impact on student success is clear, as evidenced by the retention data, for example.”

WEP alumnae contribute their talents and leadership in nearly every facet of society, according to Knobloch, including government, industry, higher education, medicine, entrepreneurial start-ups and more.

“WEP prepares our students to not only become engineers and computer scientists, but to promote inclusive excellence that results in authentic impact that scales beyond measure,” she said.

In 2022, Knobloch received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. Managed by the U.S. National Science Foundation on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the award recognizes individuals for exemplary efforts to inspire and encourage individuals from underrepresented communities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Knobloch said she was honored to accept the 2022 award, and that accepting the WEPAN award on behalf of the program this year was a meaningful opportunity to celebrate WEP’s impact on engineering and inclusion excellence.

“The WEPAN award shines a spotlight on effective practices that champion engineering equity and inclusion,” Knobloch said. “I was honored to accept this national recognition on behalf of WEP, our phenomenal students and leagues of talented alumnae that are the fabric of our community.”


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“When you meet one accomplished woman, it is easy to categorize her as an anomaly and put her on an unattainable shelf. But when you meet 40 accomplished women, you are empowered to exploit the common denominator and strategize how you can become one of them." — Katherine Maloney, 2024 chemical engineering graduate