Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Aileen Ponce, a fourth-year biomedical engineering major at the University of Iowa, is a first-generation American and first in her family to go to college. In the College of Engineering, she helps welcome and encourage students with backgrounds like her own.

As a high school student, Aileen Ponce knew she liked to build things. Whenever she bought an item that required directions, she’d throw away the instructions on purpose because she enjoyed the challenge. But when it came time to choose a college, the idea of figuring things out on her own—as a prospective first-generation college student—was less than appealing.

“I didn’t have many peers who had gone to college, so I wasn’t sure what this new world would be like,” she says. “The idea of starting off by myself wasn’t something I was super excited about.”

Ponce, of Waukegan, Illinois, wasn’t just intimidated by the new world of college. The major she was interested in would be intense too. She applied to 11 schools and visited several engineering programs. But when she attended an Explore Engineering at Iowa day, something stood out.

“Engineering can be a stressful environment, and at other places I visited, you could see that there was a lot of competition and people weren’t as keen on helping each other,” she says. “When I came here, I saw that there were so many shared study spaces and people helping each other. So I really liked the community aspect. Visiting gave me a better picture of what it’s like, and I got to know the culture better. And I thought, ‘I can do well here and get all the help I need.’”

That assessment has turned out to be true—in her program and at the university in general.

When she first arrived on campus, Ponce, a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Mexico before she was born, participated in the Iowa Edge Program, which helps first-generation and minority students ensure a successful academic and social transition to the university.

“Starting off my college experience that way was really great, and I think it had a lot to do with my retention here,” says Ponce, now a fourth-year biomedical engineering student. “Spending the first couple of days with students who had backgrounds similar to mine helped me feel more comfortable. Our days were jam-packed with visiting the cultural centers, learning about all the different people we could go to. Having that support reinforced the idea that, even though I might be different, I belong here like everybody else. I saw that there were a lot of resources and people available, people who cared about my ability to stay in college and succeed.”

“When I came here, I saw that there were so many shared study spaces and people helping each other. So I really liked the community aspect. Visiting gave me a better picture of what it’s like, and I got to know the culture better. And I thought, ‘I can do well here and get all the help I need.” - Aileen Ponce

During her time at Iowa, Ponce has served as a tutor for MESA, a program for K–12 students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields, and an RA for the People in Engineering Living Learning Community. As she has progressed through the biomedical engineering program, Ponce says one of the most important lessons she’s learned has been that “It’s OK to ask for help.”

“When you’re in engineering, or even just in college in general, it can be easy to be hard on yourself, especially if you tend to be high-achieving. Sometimes college doesn’t reflect how you used to be,” she says. “I’ve learned that it’s OK to struggle. There’s no shame in that at all. And the sooner you ask for help, the better off you will be.”

Inclusion Agents are undergraduate student staff members who promote a welcoming and inclusive environment in the College of Engineering. As one of their duties, they coordinate a MESA tutoring program for students in grades 5­–12 who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields.

She learned this firsthand in one of her biomedical engineering core courses junior year when she fared poorly on a midterm exam. Her professor, Osama Saba, approached her to discuss what had gone wrong.

“He noticed that I was doing well in class, participating and paying attention, and doing well in the labs, but that the test score didn’t reflect that,” she says.

Ponce told her professor that she had always struggled with test-taking, despite being a good student.

“He told me that there are people I could talk to about having an additional amount of time, or getting help with whatever else I needed,” she says. “I’d never met a professor so invested in me as a person. He was interested in all of our projects, and he’d always stay after class to talk to us, or slow down the material so we understood. That’s not to say I haven’t had other good professors, but I had never had an interaction like that, and it was mind-blowing.”

This year, Ponce is serving in a role that allows her to provide support to other students. As one of four College of Engineering Inclusion Agents, she will work to design and implement diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) workshops and other events for undergraduate students that foster a sense of belonging.

“I’m really excited that this program exists,” she says. “For a long time, I struggled with impostor syndrome, so I know it can be hard if you don’t fit into the stereotype of what an engineer is or looks like. So, whether they may be LGBTQ+, or from low socioeconomic status, or even just being a female in the field of engineering, this is a way to give students a place where they’re able to connect with others who have similar identities, or help them find support they may not be able to find otherwise. This position allows me to do something I’m really passionate about and to help other students.