McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University

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Minority Students Get Ready to EXCEL in Engineering School

Jun 28, 2001
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Twenty-three academically elite minority students - 16 African Americans and seven Latinos, including eight women - arrived June 23 to take part in an intense summer challenge program before beginning their undergraduate engineering studies at the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University.

The five-week program is called EXCEL because it is designed to challenge minority students to perform at the top of their class from the time they begin their engineering education.



Minority students in the McCormick School have a graduation rate twice the national average for minority engineering students. Almost 80 percent of the school's minority students have graduated on schedule since the EXCEL program began in 1978. The national average is about 40 percent.



Shovahn Rincón, a computer science senior, participated in the summer program three years ago. "I attended EXCEL in order to gain a more solid understanding of the college experience, both the academic and social aspects," said Rincón, whose two older sisters and younger brother also went through the program. "My most important lesson was discipline - our professors gave us incredible amounts of work to do in very short time periods, so time management and efficiency were essential."



Participation in EXCEL - now in its 23rd year - is optional for the incoming freshmen, but every year large numbers of students attend the rigorous 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. program. The curriculum includes math, chemistry, engineering analysis, community-based engineering projects and leadership experiences. Students also get an early taste of campus life, living in dormitories along with five upperclassmen, who serve as tutors and counselors. The upperclassmen went through the program themselves as freshmen.



EXCEL students develop strong friendships that help sustain them through the next four years and beyond. "I spent five very difficult weeks with the same 30 students," said Rincón. "We studied, ate and socialized together and supported one another through hard classes and the adjustment of moving away from home for the first time. We all formed an incredible bond that remains strong to this day."



"Our overall goal at McCormick is to provide a supportive community that facilitates the retention and ultimate graduation of our students," said Ellen Worsdall, assistant dean and director of Northwestern's Minority Engineering Opportunity Program (MEOP), which administers the EXCEL summer program and a complementary program during the academic year called COMPLEAT.



Once their academic careers are under way, students can take advantage of institutional programs available to all students, such as tutoring, advising and a university-wide mentoring program that matches students with an on-campus staff person and a member of the University's alumni. In addition, the minority students often take active leadership roles in Northwestern's chapters of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE). These organizations play a vital role in offering students a variety of leadership roles as well as opportunities for academic and professional growth.



Tanya Ortega, who graduated in 1996 with a bachelor's degree in computer science, also benefited from EXCEL. "I wouldn't be where I am today without the support the summer program opened up for me at Northwestern," said Ortega, now a systems software engineer with Cirrus Logic, Inc. in Austin, Texas. "I made good friends right away, met Northwestern faculty, learned about the minority organizations and developed a group study network that we kept going for four years."



EXCEL is provided free to students. Financial support for tuition, room and board and transportation is provided by Northwestern, Ford Motor Company, Merck, ADC Telecommunications, ASG Renaissance, Dow Chemical Company and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company.



Northwestern's five-week summer program began as a minority initiative in 1965 and was officially established in 1978 with an initial grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Since 1978, more than 770 minority students have benefited from the challenging summer program.


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