Urgency for STEM

Meet Raquel Tamez. Since becoming CEO of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) in June 2017, she has been doubling down on Hispanic participation in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

SHPE was founded in 1974 by a group of engineers employed by the city of Los Angeles. Their objective was to form a national organization of professional engineers to serve as role models in the Hispanic community.  SHPE now has a network of over 225 chapters nationally.

Nonetheless, “urgency” is a word that keeps coming up in conversation with Tamez. She described SHPE as “the best kept secret,” but added that this has to change. Tamez has cited census data that Hispanics represent 15 percent of the U.S. workforce, but only eight percent of those working in scientific, technology, engineering and mathematics professions.  Despite the growth of the Hispanic population and upward trends in education and income, that there has been a negligible rate of progress when viewed through the lens of STEM education, and professionals working in STEM careers.

Tamez pointed out several barriers that SHPE aims to mitigate, notably a lack of awareness of the opportunities and access to higher education.  Some parents may not fully realize the opportunities within STEM professions and prompt their children, especially daughters, to pursue those studies and careers. At the same time, she noted a lack of diversity among STEM faculty at the university level who could help students navigate the academic world.

Although not an engineer herself, Tamez’s background in law and the nonprofit world is tailor-made for her advocacy role. She is a graduate of University of Texas at Austin and St. Mary’s University School of Law, and is a member of the Washington, D.C. Hispanic Bar Association and the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity Talent Development Program. She has been recognized for her contributions to the community including the Young Hispanic Corporate Achiever Award presented by the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility.

Focusing on the numerical disparity of Hispanics entering STEM professions, Tamez said, “I want to change the paradigm, to remind [SHPE] student members that Hispanics were some of the first scientists, engineers, mathematicians, architects, and inventors,” pointing to the accomplishments of the Aztec, Inca and Maya cultures.  “We have roots in STEM! We are temple builders! We come from a long line of warriors and creators!”

Among SHPE’s many and various National Programs is Noche de Ciencias, a community engagement program for students and parents to, among other goals, help them get into colleges/universities and obtain scholarships as well as ongoing support for university students and help in getting their first jobs. Tamez also cited the need to “diversify diversity,” and “make diversity more inclusive,” pointing to the opportunity to enhance diversity among corporate diversity officials as well as the need for tech companies to support inclusion in a meaningful way.

One refrain often heard when discussing encouraging more Hispanic participation in STEM education and professions is “you can’t be what you can’t see.”  SHPE addresses that by honoring excellence among STEM professionals, businesses, role models, pioneers and promising students. “Award recipients are role models, leaders, innovators, and achievers and we are so fortunate to have so many inspiring members a part of SHPE and the Hispanic community,” Tamez said.

SHPE’s highest honor is the Jamie Oaxaca Award, named for one of the founding members of the Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists and a presidential appointee to the National Science Board. It recognizes outstanding accomplishments   in engineering and science and contributions to the Hispanic community. In 2017, the recipient was Rosendo Cruz, U.S. Recruiting Supervisor at ExxonMobil. “SHPE represents a rich Hispanic talent pipeline that is producing the future leaders that ExxonMobil, a company of more than 19,000 engineers and scientists, and our country need to remain globally competitive,” said Cruz.

A native of McAllen and a UT graduate like Tamez, Cruz joined ExxonMobil in 1992. Throughout his career, he has been a champion for initiatives that foster the improvement of learning and teaching in STEM, and improving career opportunities for women and minorities. Cruz led the launch of the National Math and Science Initiative and founded the ExxonMobil Future Leaders Academy. He has also served on boards and advisory committees of organizations such as Prospanica and the League of United Latin American Citizens {LULAC}.

SHPE’s next annual national convention will take place in November 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio.  Billed as the largest technical and career convening for Hispanics in the country, this year, the convention is expected to attract nearly 7,000 STEM professionals, students and corporate representatives. It’s an opportunity for companies, government agencies, and universities to recruit top talent from SHPE membership and also provides educational, technical and career opportunities for professional and student engineers.

   John Coppola